Catholic Youth Urged to Bear Witness
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
LAST July Roman Catholics from around the world converged on Sydney, Australia, to celebrate World Youth Day 2008, a religious event sponsored by the Catholic Church.
Flag-waving visitors, or pilgrims, from 170 nations thronged the streets, cheering, singing, and spreading a carnival atmosphere across the city. Thousands of spectators lined Sydney Harbor to glimpse Pope Benedict XVI, who arrived by boat accompanied by 12 other colorful vessels. Some 500 million people worldwide watched the spectacle live on TV.
The final Mass, held at a city racecourse, drew up to 400,000 people, including 4,000 church officials and 2,000 media personnel. It was the largest single gathering ever witnessed in Australia, eclipsing attendance records set at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
What is World Youth Day? Why is it held? What activities does it include? And what light did it shed on the faith of the young people there in Sydney?
“An Erosion of Faith”
World Youth Day is an annual event celebrating the faith of Catholic youth. Church members usually mark the day in their local diocese. However, every two or three years, a large city hosts the event and Catholic youth around the world are invited to attend. Ten cities on five continents have staged such gatherings, and millions have attended these.
But, as church officials admit, World Youth Day is also about stemming the decline in the Catholic Church. “We face a serious erosion of practice and to some extent an erosion of faith,” said George Cardinal Pell, Australia’s senior Catholic cleric. “World Youth Day is an attempt to do something about it.”
The number of priests is falling worldwide, according to Vatican figures. Tens of thousands have left the priesthood in recent decades to marry. The number of those who are training for the priesthood in Australia has plunged more than 70 percent over the past 30 years. The average age of priests in Australia’s largest diocese is now in the 60’s, some 20 years older than the average age in 1977.
Church attendance in many countries has also waned. About 25 percent of all Australians call themselves Catholic, but only 14 percent of these regularly attend church. Fewer than 10 percent of Catholic youths are thought to attend. Meanwhile, many Catholics disobey church teachings on sexual morality, contraception, and divorce. Others are disillusioned by church scandals, such as those involving pedophile priests.
World Youth Day “is really a last-ditch attempt to stop the rot,” says The Sydney Morning Herald. “The church leadership in Australia and Rome is looking for restoration and renewal through the young.” How are church leaders reaching out to them?
Pageantry and Parties
World Youth Day 2008 included church pageantry, group workshops, religious pilgrimages, and huge gatherings for the celebration of Mass. Although these activities deeply moved many of these pilgrims, some noted another spirit animating the proceedings. A young Catholic named Alexandra from the United States said about World Youth Day, “It’s just one big party.”
The six-day Sydney gathering featured 450 festive events, including concerts, films, plays, exhibitions, and street performances. The music ranged from opera and Gregorian chant to heavy metal and rap. Rock concerts drew thousands of young revelers.
These events concerned some Catholics. The occasion has “become just a happy party—a week of partying and concerts and world activities with very little that is truly holy and sacred,” said priest Peter Scott to Australia’s ABC News. In fact, in the year 2000, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote: “‘Rock’ [music] is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.”—The Spirit of the Liturgy.
The question might be raised, “Will World Youth Day prove to be a life-changing event?” “Perhaps for a tiny minority,” noted former priest Paul Collins. “But most will revert to their previous patterns of existence,” he said. “Fundamental change doesn’t occur through spectacular events, but through reflection, careful planning and a willingness to tackle deep-seated problems.”
“Be My Witnesses”
Church leaders are clearly conscious of those facts. Hence, World Youth Day 2008 featured the theme: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”*
Bishops urged pilgrims to “discover a new apostolic zeal to witness more fully the Gospel in the modern world.” Pope Benedict XVI exhorted pilgrims to become “a new generation of apostles,” and on another occasion he urged them to spread “the Good News among their friends, their families, and all whom they meet.”
These appeals struck a chord with some sincere pilgrims. Ramido, a 20-year-old from the United States, told one reporter: “I take being a witness seriously.” But Beatrice, an 18-year-old from Italy, observed: “Young people today don’t speak about God. To be a witness these days is a very difficult thing.” Many pilgrims echoed the comment of two teenage girls from Texas, U.S.A., “The only ones who witness where we come from are Jehovah’s Witnesses!”
Youths Who Bear Witness
Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses, young and old, are well-known for their zealous witnessing. Why do they do it? “Love for God, love for people, and love for the Bible,” says Sotir, a 22-year-old Witness from Sydney.
During World Youth Day 2008, nearly 400 young Witnesses from Sydney, though not attending the event, joined in a special campaign to share Bible truths with visiting Catholic pilgrims. “I was delighted to meet these spiritually-minded young Catholics,” said Travas, aged 25. “Many of them had good Bible questions, and I enjoyed showing them satisfying answers.”
“My approach was relaxed and informal,” said Tarsha, aged 23. “I wanted to welcome them to Sydney and hear what they believed.” “Where appropriate, I gave the visitors a gift—the book What Does the Bible Really Teach?”* said Frazer, aged 20. “Everyone I met was happy to receive it.”
Many visitors clearly enjoyed their discussions with Witness youths. Suzanne, from Fiji, asked Belinda, a 19-year-old Witness, why God has permitted suffering. Belinda suggested that they discuss the answer presented in the Bible Teach book. When they finished, Suzanne said: “Usually people just tell me that God works in mysterious ways. This time I really got an answer!” When Belinda gave her the book, Suzanne exclaimed: “I was trying to memorize everything you said. I didn’t think you would let me keep the book!”
One Filipino visitor asked Marina, a 27-year-old Witness, to take her photograph in front of a Sydney landmark. A friendly discussion followed, and Marina gave the woman a Bible Teach book. “I actually prayed last night to understand the Bible better,” the woman remarked. “This book could be the answer to my prayer!”
Levi, a 27-year-old Witness, struck up a conversation with two visitors from Panama, a mother and daughter. The exchange soon turned to spiritual matters, and a fine discussion of Bible teachings followed. The two accepted a Bible Teach book. Later, Levi asked, “What has been the highlight of your trip?” Grasping the Bible Teach book, the daughter replied, “Meeting you.”
Yes, many young Catholics were eager to know more about the Bible. What about you? Would you like to understand the Bible better? Then why not ask Jehovah’s Witnesses for a free home Bible study? They would be delighted to help you too!
This theme is a partial quote of Acts 1:8 from The Jerusalem Bible.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Blurb on page 27]
“We face a serious erosion of practice and to some extent an erosion of faith.”—Roman Catholic George Cardinal Pell
[Box/Pictures on page 25]
CHURCH VOCATIONS EXPO
World Youth Day 2008 featured the largest religious vocations expo ever held in Australia. Over 100 Catholic orders and agencies urged more than 50,000 pilgrims to consider careers in the Catholic Church as priests, nuns, or religious workers.
[Picture on page 24, 25]
Colorfully dressed pilgrims paraded through the streets
[Pictures on page 26]
Jehovah’s Witnesses reached out to pilgrims who toured the city of Sydney
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]