The Pope’s Visit to Australia—Just a Pilgrimage?
By Awake! correspondent in Australia
ON MONDAY, November 24, 1986, an Air New Zealand Boeing 767 aircraft touched down at Canberra, Australia’s capital. On board was Pope John Paul II, visiting the world’s smallest continent as part of his longest-ever overseas tour.
To greet him were the governor-general and the prime minister of Australia, along with their wives, and, of course, many dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church, for this was a visit by one who is not just a religious leader but also a head of state.
Formalities over, John Paul directed his opening address to all Australians, not just to Roman Catholics. He began: “To all Australians, people of undoubted goodwill, I come as a friend. . . . I am embracing the entire country: the young and the old, the weak and the strong, those who believe and those whose hearts are weighed down by doubt.”
If “those who believe” meant Roman Catholics, the number in Australia is almost 4 million—25 percent of the population. And though Australia has long been considered a secular society, the ratio of practicing Catholics in this land is quite high. In fact, 35 to 38 percent of Australian Catholics regularly attend Mass.
Despite this, however, the Catholic Church in Australia does have its problems. In the 1950’s the church was split by a labor dispute, resulting in the development of factions that have become increasingly critical of one another. Also, attendances at Mass are falling, and the ranks of priests are thinning. Additionally, more and more of the Catholic laity are ignoring the church’s teachings on contraception, abortion, and divorce.
“Look, Listen, and Then Judge”
The theme chosen for the papal visit was “Christ the way, the truth and the life.” This was a fine Scriptural theme, and many looked forward to the pope’s shedding some guidance and truth on problems today facing Catholics and Australians in general. Some expected that he might condemn nuclear testing in the Pacific—a problem literally on Australia’s doorstep. Others were keen to hear him support Aboriginal land rights or speak on labor disputes and perhaps discuss women’s rights.
The tour organizer, Australian Monsignor Brian Walsh, a priest of 30 years’ standing, was hopeful that important things would be covered in some of the papal addresses. So he encouraged all, even skeptics, to “look, listen, and then judge.”
“Wiping Their Hands on the Papal Face”
Pope John Paul had made more than 30 overseas tours before coming to Australia, and the 60 and more countries he visited saw memorabilia of all descriptions produced to commemorate the occasion and, hopefully, to earn profits for promoters. Australia was no exception. The church tried to keep a degree of control over such sales in the hope that “nothing in absolute bad taste [would] emerge.” But this is always a touchy area. For example, a well-known Catholic nun complained about commemorative tea towels and people “wiping their hands on the papal face.” The same nun also said: “Imagine the Sermon on the Mount being delivered, surrounded by souvenir-sellers, hot dog salesmen, TV cameras and Portaloos [portable toilets].”
However, it was not the multitude of medallions, spoons, T-shirts, and posters that drew most comment. It was the overall sponsorship. One sponsor was a brewery that issued cans of beer bearing the papal miter. As Australians are among the heaviest beer drinkers in the world, this venture proved profitable. But it also caused controversy and outspoken criticism.
Another sponsor was an Australian mining company that is well known for rigidly opposing Aboriginal land rights, an issue that the pope was known to support strongly. So it was not surprising that approval for this sponsorship was noted as being unusual. Indeed, some were quite vocal as to why there was need for sponsorship at all. Another nun voiced her objection by saying: “If Jesus came, no one would sponsor Him. He may well attack the whole concept of corporate sponsorship.”
Who Footed the Bill?
Although many invitations came from the Catholic Church, it seems the pontiff only visits countries where an invitation is received from the government or the head of state. This meant that for the Australian visit, both federal and state governments shared part of the cost.
Some non-Catholics felt a sense of injustice at being asked to share in footing the bill, especially as some believed that a recent visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury had passed almost unnoticed. More disturbing to others was the fact that the cost was being estimated at 12 times the amount spent on an earlier visit by Queen Elizabeth II.
Unity—On Whose Terms?
In an effort to bring an ecumenical flavor to the visit, however, the pope spoke to a gathering of representatives of 14 other religious groups in Melbourne and held an interdenominational service there, urging all to put aside their differences and to pray for peace. He visited St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne, said a prayer for peace, and lit a candle symbolizing hoped-for reunification of the Christian churches.
Generally speaking, Australian Protestants were polite and well mannered during the time the pontiff was in the country. But some denominations, such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, made it clear that they did not accept the pope as the head of all Christians nor the claim that the apostle Peter had been bishop of Rome. They stressed that such claims found no support in Scripture or in church history. On the other hand, the Uniting Church, which has quite a large following in Australia, welcomed the visit, saying that to many people in their church, the pope was in a sense their pope too.
“Perhaps He Needs a New Speech Writer”
Apparently, all the pope’s speeches were written in Australia and sent to Rome, where the pope himself wrote them out in Polish, adding whatever touches he found necessary. Someone else translated them back into English, and an Australian bishop cast an eye on the final product. The pope then practiced the speeches before the current master of pontifical ceremonies, who is an Irishman.
Veteran Vatican correspondents have several times heard much of what the pope has to say in his prepared speeches. Nevertheless, the language nicknamed papalese can be a hard nut to crack, even for experienced reporters. One spokesman from an Italian news agency felt that the pope’s speeches were often obscure and too long. An Australian reporter expressed disappointment that the homilies were so bland and full of self-evident truisms. Another journalist, writing in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, said: “His speeches have been conservative, often stating the obvious, and at times obscure. . . . Perhaps he needs a new speech writer . . . If his speeches confuse experienced correspondents they must bewilder the average person seeking enlightenment.”
“The Church Opens Her Arms to You”
Despite the confusion claimed by some correspondents, however, the church hoped that the speeches would not bewilder the average person seeking enlightenment. The population had been encouraged ‘to come, look, and listen,’ and come they did by the thousands. The highest attendance at any one location was an estimated quarter of a million at the Sydney Randwick Racecourse. In his sermon there, John Paul concentrated primarily on those he regarded as lapsed Catholics. With arms opened in a wide gesture, he pleaded: “To all those who have wandered from their spiritual home I wish to say, Come back! The Church opens her arms to you, the Church loves you.”
Physically, it was certainly an arduous trip for a person 66 years of age. Altogether, the pope traveled some 6,800 miles (11,000 km) in almost a week and attended more than 50 separate events, including celebration of the Eucharist (Mass) in state capitals, as well as in Darwin and Alice Springs. For many of the faithful, it was an emotional experience. One man in Western Australia commented: “When the Pope arrived [in Perth] it was like Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Another in Melbourne commented about his presence: “He has the body language seen in some Indian mystics.” Many cried openly.
Tour organizers were generally satisfied with the large attendances at the gatherings. Most of those who did attend enjoyed the spectacle of a 14-piece rock band, well-trained choirs, the 21-gun salute of welcome, the papal guards, the processions, and the flags. There were even clowns, said to have been arranged “to put smiles on people’s faces.”
A Catholic priest, who is also a columnist for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, wrote: “So, this is the way the pilgrim Pope is coming to meet the people of Australia: non-Catholics and Catholics in a fast, razzle dazzle, multi-million dollar road show.” “The Pope came as a pilgrim with all the extravaganza and razzamatazz of a megastar.” A Sydney Morning Herald editorial commented on what seemed to be emphasis on the “spectacle” angle: “And here is the gamble that the pilgrim Pope is taking. The spectacle, it seems, is to be the message. . . . The haunting question is: how lasting will the impact be?”
Message for the Australian People
For the thousands who came to listen, what message did the speeches (prepared in Australia) contain?
To the Disabled: Physical limitations can be transformed by Christ’s love into something good and beautiful and can make one worthy of the destiny for which one was created.
On Unemployment: The need is for the social order to recognize that humans are more important than things. People must always remember that the worker is more important than profits or machines.
To the Media: They must realize the responsibility they have not only to report on evil but to help eliminate it, the challenge not only to report good deeds but to encourage them.
To Aboriginals: What has been done cannot be undone. Aboriginal reserves still exist today and require a just and proper settlement that still lies unachieved.
John Paul also spoke on the need for peace as the 1986 International Year of Peace drew toward its close. Addressing a crowd of over 30,000 composed predominantly of young people at a Youth Celebration in Sydney, the pontiff said: “If you want peace, work for justice, . . . defend life, . . . proclaim truth, . . . treat others as you would like them to treat you.”
In his farewell speech, he urged Australian people to remember who they were and where they were going, telling them that as a nation they were called to greatness. Then, to the background music of the songs “God Bless Australia” and “On the Road to Gundagai,” John Paul II climbed the steps to the gleaming white Qantas jet that headed back for Rome via the Seychelles Islands.
Any Lasting Results?
What were the results of the papal visit? The Brisbane Courier Mail came to the following thought-provoking conclusion: “It has been a tour with high points and low points, surprises and disappointments. . . . The Australian Catholic Church will need to do some hard thinking. If Pope John Paul II, a man of remarkable charisma, cannot lure Catholics back inside the walls of the church it seems unlikely anything offered by his local bishops will succeed.”
[Blurb on page 13]
“If Jesus came, no one would sponsor Him”
[Blurb on page 14]
“The Pope came as a pilgrim with all the extravaganza and razzamatazz of a megastar”
[Picture on page 15]
Aboriginal men line up to kiss the hand of Pope John Paul II