World Youth Day is multifaceted. It has been seen in many different ways and subjected to many kinds of analysis. A preacher might compare it to an autumn rose, full, richly coloured and perfectly formed. It would be right to notice the aphids, black spot and the drought that affect the plant. But if we focus only on these things, and regard the rose as a nest of horticultural problems and biological infestations, we might not stop to wonder at the beauty of the rose. And that after all is reason why the rose was planted.
Observers of the World Youth Day event have found much to question in its organisation, in the role played by Government, in the image of the Catholic Church communicated through it, and in its effectiveness in encouraging faith in young adults.
But these are secondary aspects of the event. They will certainly bear reflection after World Youth Day. But the main story is surely the experience of the young people who gather from around Australia and the world and the exuberance of their celebration.
The texture of World Youth Day is already apparent. Young people from Asia and beyond have gathered in Australia. Most have been offered hospitality by Australian families. In local church communities they have met young Australians whom they may accompany to Sydney.
The energies created in these meetings will be intensified in Sydney both through the main and the ancillary events. Many of these strongly emphasise social justice and encourage participants to reflect on their lives and their world. All this shapes a rich and exuberant experience which will be appropriated in very different ways.
Although World Youth Day is a Catholic Church celebration, it is also of broader interest. At the heart of the experience is shared meaning and connection. They feed the energy of the event. For a few days the young people have the opportunity to explore together basic symbols of Catholic faith about which many would ordinarily be ambivalent. They find themselves celebrating in the company of young Catholics of other nations who may instinctively and naturally identify with these symbols.
In Australia connection and meaning are problematic. From the tabloids to the scholarly quarterlies, observers remark on the superficiality of connection and meaning in Australian society. Binge drinking, gangs and a selfish materialism are only a few of the phenomena attributed to the young as evidence for the these weaknesses. It is no wonder that so many fear that Australians risk losing any strong sense of national identity.
It would be easy to exaggerate the defects of Australian youth culture and to oppose this culture to an idealised and nostalgic image of a communal and decent past. But the concern about connection and meaning makes interesting all large events where young people find simple ways of celebrating meaning and connection.
Whether these events are associated with sport, with Hillsong, with environmental movements or with political change, they suggest ways in which young people may enter easily into larger human and civic values.
In Australia Anzac Day offers the most thought-provoking secular parallel with World Youth Day. Young people increasingly include Anzac Cove in their overseas travels. Many also join the local celebration of the day. They find in it some sense of connection and meaning.
As with World Youth Day, it is common to question the depth and durability of the experience of Anzac Day, the motives of Government in endorsing it, and the values that it embodies. The questions are legitimate. But the phenomenon itself has much to commend it.
Gatherings of young people, including World Youth Day, in which the participants are encouraged to enjoy one another's company and to be reflective are precious. World Youth Day encourages families within the Catholic Church to offer hospitality and nurture to the young of their own communities and of overseas communities.
It encourages the young people to reflect on the meaning of their lives and on how they might live generously. Many will begin deep and lasting connections with their companions from other nations. This kind of event is a building block for a generous and decent Australia.
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