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Thou shalt not be annoying, or: The pope is in town!

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).


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. Grant W Grant W 14 July 2008

    Australia and its secular citizens just hopped up a significant number of notches in my estimation.

    Any country’s citizens that are willing to protest the arrival of the papal circus to the degree that it has forced the government to threaten protesters with hefty fines (what happened to that freedom of expression btw) are deserving of way more respect that heaped upon the silly old goat that runs around the world indoctrinating people about the invisible man in the sky that wants you pay the church all your money.

    You would never guess at enlightened minds behind that accent but good for you all. Protest away I say and send the message out loud and clear “It is the new millenium, game is up, go home and leave the truly enlightened alone”…

  2. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 15 July 2008

    Before you get too excited, the tenor of this week’s editorialising is avowedly pro-WYD, anti-anti-Catholicism and pro-freedom of religion. This week, it is not cool to be anti-religion.

  3. Jon Jon 15 July 2008

    Is it a coincidence that a Google ad immediately beneath your opinion-piece is one asking “Was Jesus a lunatic?”

  4. Kit Kit 15 July 2008

    I see this ‘law’ just got struck down. Sounds good to me. It’s only a step away from this to being jailed if you bitch about a politician in public or heckle a ruling party supporter…

  5. Grant W Grant W 15 July 2008

    Well I preferred them anti-anti-anti Catholicism but here’s hoping for another swing in next week’s sentiment!

    I guess the whole thing just highlights the annoyance of the growing numbers of non-religious tax-paying citizens at having their lives affected by something they consider plain silly and having to pay top dollar for it to boot.

    Not only that but should they decide to protest against the fact that they do not approve of their tax dollars being spent sheparding a geriatric shaman from the world’s biggest child molesting cult around town, they will be considered criminals ( again ;) ) and pay hefty fines. I would say the protection of religion and the favouring of its followers has trumped freedom of expression, a supposed pillar of a secular democracy, and hence I feel their frustrated secular grumpiness in solidarity.

    As for your gay Jewish friend, brave soul, I think we should pass around a collection plate for his fine…

  6. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 17 July 2008

    Look out for my next report on WYD. The road to hell is paved with bad puns.

  7. Garg the Unzola Garg the Unzola 23 July 2008

    That’s supposed to be Hitler-Jugend, my bad.

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