The collapse of a confident Church
It is Passiontide and autumn. I am in Australia, “the great southern land of the Holy Spirit”, as Benedict XVI described it when he came here for World Youth Day (WYD) in 2008. That was the last time I was here, and I vowed then that I would never make the journey again, averse as I am to the pressurised purgatory of long-haul flights and their after-effects. But now, as then, it is a mission that has brought me here. “Join the priesthood and see the world” is fast becoming my vocations recruitment slogan.
WYD in Sydney was brilliantly organised and marked by an intense spirit of prayer. There were 24-hour Adoration chapels at every possible venue, from Randwick Racecourse to the Sydney Opera House, queues for Confession everywhere and a massive vocations expo with priests on hand to give spiritual direction to visitors.
It had all the joy and sense of festival that WYD always has, but of those I have attended it felt the most substantial. It dared to challenge the tired 1970s agenda: that all that young people respond to in their lives of faith is pop culture and Protestant-style testimony.
The Way of the Cross, staged throughout the city with the utmost reverence and verisimilitude, moved the young people I had brought to tears. All the liturgy dared to bring out treasures old and new. WYD presented an Australian Church which, though there were scandals emerging, seemed to be forward-looking, which seemed to have grasped that its youth needed authentic catechesis, a liturgy which connected them with tradition and a Christological spirituality based on the worthy celebration of the sacraments. It presented a confident Church. It felt, as Benedict XVI said at the time, like a Pentecost.
Seven years later I arrived to find a Church in the throes of its own passiontide. The royal commission on child abuse recently completed several months of hearing damning evidence on the scale of the problem in the Australian Church. As well as the usual engagement at the level of school and parish, the Church has been hugely involved in professional social services of every kind. In some states the Church is the second biggest employer after the state itself.
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