If you consider yourself a staunch atheist, you’re probably nodding to yourself that religion is indeed "the opium of the people" after seeing the enthusiastic hoards of young people at the World Youth Day opening Mass, that solemn ceremony of Catholic worship with Latin and incense to boot.
But if that’s your starting point in trying to make sense of what this sea of teenagers and twenty-somethings are so nuts about, you won’t get far. In fact, by the end of this article, you’ll probably believe it even more.
I am also trying to make sense of what is going on here in Sydney because so far it’s not like anything I have ever seen.
As a theist who identifies with Catholicism, I’ve known for over a year I would head to Sydney for World Youth Day. I’ve been going to frequent preparation sessions looking at the history, the structure, and the teachings – both the religious doctrines and the social directives – of the Catholic Church. I have my questions and I’ve sought answers to them – that is ongoing.
However nothing has prepared me for what I found when I got here. Over the next few days I will attempt to put some of it into words, but I don’t expect it will satisfy the cynics. Faith is an experience that is similar to love in some ways. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it, doesn’t want to have it, or worse, doesn’t even want to understand it. It’s not just the "religious" who can be blinded by their beliefs.
But let’s leave the esoteric stuff for later. World Youth Day is also an event on a scale of which Sydney has never seen. And some of us are feeling it.
I was on an overnight bus from Melbourne on Sunday night. It appears my group were directed to the wrong bus. Thirteen hours later, after very little sleep, we arrived at Homebush around 9:30am. We had been told another bus would take us to our accommodation (about another 30 minute drive away) from there. That never eventuated.
Four hours later, we were still at Homebush. Some of us hadn’t eaten since the night before, and it was now lunchtime on Monday. But in preparation for World Youth Day, we had been reminded that we were not tourists, but we were making a pilgrimage – a tradition in the Catholic Church of a short journey that symbolises the journey of life towards God, which inevitably involves some sacrifice.
And so the hassles were part of the experience. None of the 21 people in our group made a big deal of it. I won’t even try to explain this, but it may have had something to do with being surrounded by hundreds of our peers, some decked out in their national colours, dancing, singing, celebrating. It’s infectious.
We eventually made it to our accommodation by cabs – paid for by the travel agent who messed up the booking – to a school north-west of Sydney only to discover that some of our luggage was missing. Mine still is.
But if getting to our accommodation was crazy, access to food and water is a whole other adventure – which I’ll leave for another time.
We spent much of yesterday in the city before heading to Barangaroo for the opening Mass. In Sydney’s Hyde Park, the celebrations – I don’t know how else to describe the singing and dancing that is going on – continued most of the morning. National flags are the fashion norm. Everyone greets each other with broad smiles, perhaps the most universal language – if it sounds cheesy I assure you it doesn’t feel that way.
I was one of the few lucky ones approached by NotoPope leader Rachel Evans yesterday. The fact that I know exactly what she looks like says something about the coverage her little campaign has been given in mainstream media and sure enough, amid all the amazing nationalities present at Hyde Park – I met people from Brunei, Reunion Island and United Arab Emirates – Evans was the only one being trailed by media.
She walked past me and offered a "World Youth Day condom". I said no thanks but she didn’t even bother to hear the response. It was a pure stunt, that was obvious. As they moved on, a 16-year-old who was standing near ran after them. Tapping Evan’s sidekick on the shoulder (Evans was hard to reach for the camera and giant microphone following her) she asked, "Why are you doing this?" Again, it barely registered. The sidekick just looked at her and kept walking.
Maybe they don’t have reasons for their belief.
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