A Big High Five for the Dude in the Sky

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If you’d paid a few thousand dollars to fly to the other side of the world, where you would sleep on the floor of a school, eat most of your meals out of a takeaway bag and eventually spend a large part of your time waiting, you would think that when the main reason for your attendance appeared, you’d pay attention.

And, it has to be said, most of the pilgrims waiting at Barangaroo last Thursday for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI did seem to be paying serious attention. When they weren’t yelling "Viva Papa," it was "Benedicto! Benedicto!" or, in one case "We love/We love/Benedict/Benedict" to the tune of "We Will Rock You" by Queen, or, even better, that well-known secular hymn, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!" (I regret to inform my readers that we appear to have now taught this to young people from around the world. I expect to hear "La France, La France, La France! Oui, Oui, Oui!" at Beijing next month).

But next to me, as I waited for the Pope to alight from his Captain Cook cruise of the harbour, stood a pack of the most bored pilgrims in the world. They were German, so perhaps they’d been to the last World Youth Day in Cologne and decided they didn’t need to see the Pope again? Two were gossiping, one was playing with a Nintendo DS and one was almost certainly asleep. A couple — married, for those of you who have been playing Catch a Pilgrim Being Naughty for the last week — were going for it in the most spectacular fashion. As the crush intensified, members of the crowd began tripping over our little team of pilgrims, none of whom seemed particularly concerned about the odd looks they were getting. I was tempted to tell the couple to get a room, but the Pope Mobile drove past and everyone else went comprehensively nuts.

The point of my slightly mean-spirited story is that despite my best efforts, it was difficult to feel nasty around the pilgrims. Disdain could be directed at the WYD organizers easily enough. Bishop Anthony Fraser’s comments have been picked over by people far mightier than myself, and he’ll have certainly earned himself a place in just about any "Quotes of the Year" list come December. Cardinal George Pell, who used his final speech at the closing Mass to praise all the members of the Church, particularly those "radiant young women" who join the sisterhood and "make the church beautiful," also warrants a mention. Guess Mother Teresa should have worried a little more about moisturising and a little less about caring for the dying.

The clergy have always made for easy targets. Various people asked me if I’d attempted to engage the pilgrims in a little theological discussion last week. Of course not! For a start, it became difficult to get decent quotes on how they felt about the Papal Arrival when I added, "Of course, you realise that he is the ‘representative on earth’ of an entity that does not exist?" That pretty much packed in any hope of vaguely objective reporting. It’s also a little unfair to demand that 15 year olds defend their faith. Adults would be a bit different, I think.

Another question a few people have asked me was whether anyone tried to convert me. The answer is, yes, one person. When I told her I was an agnostic she was perfectly polite. The most evangelical of the crowd appeared to be those from the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and even they limited themselves to singing and dancing in Hyde Park.

I got a few "bless yous," of course, from pilgrims who’d worked out I wasn’t playing for their side. Along the pilgrimage route from North Sydney to Randwick Racecourse were a variety of protestors, all on their way to the main rally on Taylor Square. Holding a sign saying "Gullibility annoys me," John Turner was in town from Newcastle to suggest to the pilgrims that they needed to think things through. "They haven’t learnt to think for themselves," he said. The pilgrims slogging past — "3.2 km to go" said the electronic billboard — looked curiously at his sign as they went by, but he said he hadn’t had any problems; a little criticism and a few "bless yous" were about it. The most widely reported incident was pretty minor: the case of a pilgrim who took offence at the No to Pope Coalition’s inflated condoms.

The rest of the pilgrims were revving up for the final big night — the vigil with the Pope and then Mass the next day. They seemed unlikely to let anything get them down, an attitude that had been present all week. Combine a few hundred thousand teenagers — most away from home for the first time — and it shouldn’t be too surprising you get a party atmosphere. The lack of booze and drugs meant that it was considerably more peaceful than your average outdoor event.

Most were simply overwhelmed and energetic, running around in the same sort of hysteria present at the Big Day Out, although this time it was an 82 year old German they were excited about, rather than Rage Against the Machine. "Seeing the Pope is going to be really cool!" said Sarah Dombowski, a sunny 18 year old from the Cayman Islands.

Even better was the American teenager who ran up to me as we walked along Cockle Bay wharf to see the Pope: "Hey! High five! Yeah! Jesus! Yeah!" That pretty much summed up World Youth Day for me: a big high five for the dude in the sky.

New Matilda

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