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On the road to Sydney 2008

There is more than one way to gauge the Church’s health

By Bishop Pat Power

The news that Sydney is to host the 2008 World Youth Day has been greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm especially among the two and a half thousand Australian pilgrims who took part in this year’s gathering in Cologne. Many of those young people had attended similar events in Rome in 2000 and Toronto in 2002.

This year there was the opportunity to meet the new Pope on his first visit outside Italy since his election in April and to witness his joyous return to his native Germany. Pope Benedict challenged his hearers to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, but at the same time he placed great confidence in young people as bearers of the “good news”. 

There is no doubt that these large gatherings of young people bring many positive results. The inspiration they derive from the presence of the Pope is significant in that he powerfully presents himself as a centre and source of unity. Added to that, the weight of numbers means much to those who often find themselves as part of a beleaguered minority back home. The World Youth Day helps them to discover their identity as part of a global Church in which they are very much involved.

Experience shows that at least some of the positive spirit carries them forward when they return home. Certainly in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, the formation of a vibrant youth ministry has received a great boost from these overseas gatherings.

It has been suggested that the Catholic Church in Australia will be “on trial” in the time leading up to the 2008 WYD and that there are already areas of deep concern about the life of the Church is this country. The most commonly voiced worrying statistic is the steady decline in Mass attendance especially among the young. There are of course exceptions to this trend, very notably here in Canberra in the parishes of Gungahlin and Kippax.

It is my belief that the way forward for the Catholic Church in Australia is to take up the challenges of the Second Vatican Council. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the close of the Council yet much of its teaching is still to be fully implemented. Regrettably too, there have been in some quarters moves to wind back the positive reforms already implemented. Some of the proposed changes to the English translations in the Mass will do little to encourage people back to regular church-going.

Vatican II did much to restore to lay-people their rightful place in the Church and both the 1989 and 2004 Synods called by Archbishop Francis Carroll for this Archdiocese have focused on encouraging the laity to exercise their gifts within the life of the Archdiocese. The emphasis on youth has not been insignificant. Many parishes have taken up this call at a local level, enabling the parishioners to have a real sense of ownership and a proper say in decision-making.

Partnership in ministry is meant to be more than a buzz-word.

The universal call to holiness espoused by the Council encourages all to be actively part of the life of the pilgrim Church. The primacy of conscience, re-affirmed by Vatican II, respects the unique responsibility each Christian has before God.

As well as looking at its own life, the post-Vatican II Church is called upon to see itself in relation to other Christian Churches, non-Christian religions and society has a whole. One of my favourite lines from Vatican II is the opening gambit of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially the poor and the afflicted, these too must be the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

This engagement with all people of good-will should enable the Catholic Church to be effective in spreading the message of the Gospel. It means being in partnership and in dialogue with a diversity of people and views. It means not approaching its role with a superior attitude but treasuring what it has to offer while being prepared to listen to and learn from others.

Building bridges is surely an important part of being a Catholic today. At least Pope Benedict seems to think so when we see his outreach to Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians in the first few months of his pontificate. In many ways he has given lots of examples of engaging contemporary society; he has not shirked from challenging it, but he has done so in a way which seeks to bring together rather than to alienate.

My days as a Young Christian Workers’ chaplain taught me to recognize the realities of life and to try to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on those realities. It is my hope that the young people and the rest of the Catholic Church in preparation for the 2008 World Youth Day will look honestly at the state of our country and of the Church and do whatever is possible to make Australia a more inclusive society.

The Church’s advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers, for the poorest people in our society, for our indigenous people, for those suffering from mental illness, those in prison and other vulnerable people such as the unborn and the aged will surely be the test of how true we are to our calling to be the followers of Christ.

Mass attendance may again mean something to those estranged from it when they see the Eucharist as their source of strength and means of communion with God and their sisters and brothers. There is more than one criterion by which we may be judged to be a godless society or otherwise.

Bishop Pat Power is auxiliary bishop of Canberra-Goulburn. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on August 29, 2005, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

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