Sydney has just hosted a most amazing celebration of religious faith: WYD08. This uninhibited public display of religious conviction has surprised and challenged a nation that is secularised in so many ways.
We have been part of the largest public event ever held in Australia – a religious event. And the main participants have been members of that generation – Generation Y – that so many people had been fearing was lost to organised religion.
For a week in July – the middle of our winter – hundreds of thousands of Catholics came together in a deep expression of faith, sharing what has truly been a transforming experience.
They were warmly welcomed into our schools and homes. In the Parramatta Diocese alone some 8000 pilgrims from Africa, North and South America, Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Asia, and various parts of Australia were accommodated in 47 Catholic school sites.
We also had volunteers supporting their parishes and school-centred activities with hundreds of staff lending a hand.
The event has been life-changing for so many participants – both local and from overseas – and a marvellous antidote to a sad cynicism about ‘the youth of today’.
The Pope prayed with the pilgrims that WYD08 would contribute to ‘a new Pentecost for the Church and for humanity in the third millennium’.
We can be confident that a great number of pilgrims left the experience with a deeper relationship with the Risen Lord, with their youthful idealism revitalised, with a strong sense of purpose in their lives and with a new responsiveness to the call to Christian discipleship.
The transforming experiences around WYD08 provide opportunities for Catholic educators that must be grasped.
For so long teachers and catechists have struggled to present the riches of the Catholic faith, with its Gospel of hope, to young people whose development has been so intensely influenced by consumerism, individualism and the moral relativism of the age in which we all live.
WYD08 provides a window of opportunity, a new moment of readiness, in which many young people will be more open and attracted to a life-giving religious world view and an authentic experience of Catholic life and culture. We must embrace this opportunity.
At a very practical level, we must ensure that our Religious Education programs are strong in content and taught with renewed enthusiasm and conviction. Important though our teaching is, it is less significant that our witness. We teach, first and foremost, what we are!
It is timely, too, to reconsider the quality of school liturgies and the significance of school prayer. Through religious symbols and rituals we enkindle and nourish the Catholic imagination of our students. And we must never forget the vital importance of the intrinsic connection between school and parish life, a connection which reinforces the communal dimension of our Catholic culture.
The confluence of rich opportunities presented by WYD08 is not something that comes often. The event itself can be seen as a catalyst for personal and communal renewal, and for nothing less than generational change.