Travelling around Sydney promises to be fun, fun, fun this week. Half the roads in the CBD are being closed to traffic, bus services are being rescheduled and trains will be heaving with the sweaty bodies of both bad-tempered commuters and young Catholics fired with religious fervour. Yes, the pope is in town for World Youth Day 2008.
Sydney’s response to all of this, the largest event Australia has ever hosted*, has been distinctly ambivalent. Discussion of WYD has been raging for weeks, and it’s fascinating to observe how this event has divided opinion. Revelations that the state government has instituted surprisingly draconian measures to prevent protesters or critics of the church from “annoying” the marchers — expect to pay a fine of $5 500 if you do annoy a Catholic — effectively poured petrol on a debate which until then had been smouldering quietly.
While Catholicism is Australia’s largest single religious affiliation, about 27%, few Catholics actually attend Mass regularly these days and Australia is not exactly a nation of churchgoers. So this flowering of conservative Catholicism in their midst of their city has understandably put some locals on edge.
“Despite being a contented heathen, I am driven by sheer outrage to take up the mantle (and T-shirt) of every other religion and march proudly through the streets of our secular city,” wrote one resident of Neutral Bay.
“It simply adds insult to injury that multimillions of taxpayer dollars, some declared, and more than are indirect and hidden, are being thrown at a blatantly sectarian youth brainwashing and recruiting drive in a state and a nation that is substantially if not overwhelmingly secular,” huffed a reader of the Australian.
“I barely have enough breath left in me after reading the paper to ask: What country are we living in?” a reader asked in the pages of the Sydney Horning Herald.
One online retailer even started a competition to design T-shirts to protest at the WYD.
But there are other members of the public who are appalled by what they see as plain bad manners. After all, the WYD has been held in other cities around the world without too much knotting of knickers; why is it such a problem for Sydney?
Responding to one letter writer who argued that Australians were merely “taking the piss”, one member of the public declared: “I fear any joy I might have experienced as a Catholic next week will be vastly overshadowed by my embarrassment at being Australian.” Another, this time a resident of Rose Bay, agreed: “Intending visitors may well conclude that this land of yobbos is best avoided.”
The media have done much to foment opinion. The Sydney Morning Herald, chosen daily read of more affluent liberal types, has taken a broadly cynical stance; in response, the Daily Telegraph (owned, perhaps not coincidentally, by Rupert Murdoch), which caters to the lower-middle-class, working-family, lace-curtain-moral majority, has embraced the event. The SMH‘s bone of contention relates mainly to the measures that have been taken to protect pilgrims, arguing that “the assumption that participants in such an event need to be protected from embarrassment is misplaced, repugnant and dangerous“.
The Daily Telegraph thought that the whiners were just a bunch of miserable bastards: “Still, let them complain. Because coming up with something more creative is beyond them, complaining is all they can do … As Jack Gibson said: ‘This mob would boo Santa Claus.'”
That was then, of course. Now that the eager young faithful are actually here, debate has subsided as the locals decide they’re not so bad after all. Even this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald boasts a photo of the pope with Kevin Rudd and the headline “Help save the world, Sydney”. Whether my gay Jewish friend dresses up, as he has vowed, in drag and hails the pilgrims as they pass right by his apartment on their way to the big Mass at Randwick racecourse remains to be seen. I have a feeling that $5 500 fine might just have changed his mind. As for me, I am hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope when he parades past Circular Quay just down the road on Thursday. It seems churlish not to get excited about all of this, after all.
* Besides the pope and about 200 000 Catholic youths (with 500 000 faithful expected for the Randwick Mass), the festivities are also playing host to the 84-year-old corpse of an Italian saint-in-waiting (if you can’t get around to touching his coffin at St Benedict’s church, you can buy commemorative bling here).