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The Pope regards Australia as the most “godless” place on earth. But he also thinks World Youth Day 2008 should be held here. In this special report, Desmond O’Grady, who broke the “godless” remark story in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, assesses where the Australian Church features on Rome’s radar screen?

The map painted in the loggia where the key Vatican office, the Secretariat of State, is situated shows an empty expanse where Australia is situated. The fresco was completed before the discovery of Australia – which, evidently, is still proceeding in the Vatican. 

What, for instance, was behind Pope Benedict XVI’s remark that the mainstream churches in Australia are more moribund than anywhere else in the Western world?

This brief remark occurred during a talk to priests of the Italian Alpine diocese of Aosta in July. It was part of the Pope’s sketch of the state of Christianity in the Western world where, he said, for many people the faith is no more relevant than Greek mythology.

The Pope added that, although for many contemporaries Christianity seems antiquated, the Enlightenment and what he called the cultural battles of the modern Enlightenment (1968 with its student riots) have failed to provide responses to humankind’s problems.  He argued that the application of methods drawn from the sciences was inadequate to social and ethical problems whereas Christianity could inspire the answers.

The occasion is important in understanding what seems to have been the thrust of the Pope’s remarks. He acknowledged the priests’ difficult task when priestly vocations are scarce and suggested responses such as team work.  His comment about Australia seems to derive, therefore, from the vocations situation more than from an assessment of the Australian faithful. In other words, if there are insufficient priests to staff parishes, a Church is moribund.

It may be a pointer to Benedict’s outlook that he has given audiences to several heads of the new movements within the Church - such as Comunione e Liberazione - which attract many vocations, but not to the heads of the traditional religious orders which are struggling for vocations.What, then, are his sources of information about the Australian Church?

One major source is the five yearly ad limina visits of bishops in which they exchange information with the offices of the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administration.The 1998 Australian bishops’ ad limina visit left a bad taste but I suspect that was largely because the Vatican’s man in Canberra at the time, Archbishop Franco Brambilla, had a bleak view of the Australian Church. The whole episode – which culminated in the signing of a Statement of Conclusions which purported to outline a blueprint for the Australian Church - was badly handled.  Surely as the then head of the Doctrinal Congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger, was an influential figure in the affair.

Brambilla’s successor in Canberra, Archbishop Francesco Canalini, was more nuanced.  The new nuncio, an American Ambrose De Paoli, is no ideological warrior and unlikely to foster anything similar to the 1998 episode.

But it is being asked in Rome how much importance Benedict gives to nuncios. In his first four months he did not receive any nuncios but merely greeted them for a minute or so after his audiences. In striking contrast, he has devoted 20 minutes or more to each bishop on their ad limina visits.   Benedict, therefore, has a knowledge of the Australian Church from dealing with the Australian bishops on their ad limina visits and on other occasions during his 24 years at the Doctrinal Congregation.

One such visitor is the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. Pell was a member of the Doctrinal Congregation for years. He was not working full time in Rome but was involved in the deliberations of the Congregation’s plenary sessions.In Rome, it is said that Benedict has no friends- no-one, that is, who can call in favours.But inevitably Pell as a cardinal, as a former member of the Doctrinal Congregation when Ratzinger headed it, and as someone who makes frequent visits to Rome, is the major Australian voice on the scene.

Pell emerged when Australian Catholic presence in Rome was diminishing. Until a few years ago, there was an Australian cardinal permanently in the Vatican (Edward Cassidy, who did not see eye-to-eye with Ratzinger on how to handle ecumenical relations and, some years before him, James Knox), Mark Coleridge worked in the Secretariat of State before being made an auxiliary of Melbourne, and there were several Australians heading religious orders in Rome.

The Australian presence has decreased partly as a reflex of fewer vocations which means fewer priests and nuns are available be sent to work in Rome.Another factor is that, until 1976, the Church in Australia was considered a church to which missionaries were sent and came under the aegis of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples or, as it was then known, Propaganda Fide.

Many Australian priests were sent to train at the “Prop” college which they shared with seminarians from Third World countries. There the Roman mould of the Australian Church was impressed. Australian Bishops sank a lot of money in building a new college for “Prop” just beforeAustralia was recognised as a ‘mature’ church whose reference point would in future be the Congregation for Bishops rather than the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Now fewer priests are sent to train in Rome and the Australian Church is no longer identified with a Roman institution as it was with “Prop:”  It has not established a national college for its priests as have so many other nations including Korea, England, Ireland and Germany.

These colleges, often through their rectors, act at times as embassies or agents. They were also listening posts. Each Spanish diocese has a procurator or agent as a link to the Vatican. They reside at the Spanish College which means that all Spanish dioceses, and not only the residential Spanish Cardinals who come most frequently to Rome, have a direct channel to the Vatican. For a time the bishops’ conferences of Japan and the Philippines also set up offices to have a voice in Rome but they have been closed.

Now that Rome has decided that World Youth Day 2008 will be held in Australia, someone will be appointed to oversee the initiative within the Vatican Council for the Laity.  He or she should be a channel for two-way information exchange, at least between the Vatican and Sydney.

But why did Benedict choose Sydney?

The only two continents in which World Youth Days have not been held are Africa and Australia. Australia was preferable for 2008 from the viewpoint of political stability, security and proven ability to handle big events and, evidently, Sydney presented a convincing bid document as well. Australian Catholicism could benefit from the spur provided by a properly-handled WYD.  Among other things, they have boosted priestly vocations.

But the event may be more important still for how Rome views the Australian Church. In Cologne Benedict XVI had to fit into an event planned for John Paul II. It was a WYD of two popes. WYD 2008, by contrast, will be Benedict’s. By that time the whole world will have discovered him but if, at 81, he is able to make the trip, this Pope will discover something of Australia for the first time at first hand.

Desmond O’Grady is a journalist and author whose books include The Turned Card: Christianity before and after the Wall (Dove, 1995). He lives in Rome.









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