The Pope's Pilgrims Sway Australia

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Benedict XVI admires the Sydney sky.

Before the Pope and the crowds arrived, Sydney tried hard to be cynical about the whole affair. People asked why the government was spending $80 million on World Youth Day, a Catholics-only event. They grumbled that streets would be closed and traffic disrupted. Some feared the week-long festival of faith would overtax police and emergency workers. Racing fans were angry that the final Mass would lock up the city's biggest racetrack. Activist groups saw the event as a chance to protest against Catholic teachings on homosexuality and abortion, and demanded that Pope Benedict XVI apologize for sexual crimes committed by Australian clergy.

Then the pilgrims came. The winter weather turned heavenly — one blue day after another. And the crowds of youths weren't quite the kind party-mad "Sinny" is used to. They were happy, patient, peaceable. They sang hymns and waved flags. When protesters threw condoms at them, they called, "Jesus loves you, too." When gay activists dressed as monks, nuns and devils shouted "Pope Go Homo, Gay Is Great," pilgrims made peace signs. After a mass on Bondi Beach, some high-spirited worshipers plunged into the surf. "They don't feel the cold, obviously," said local resident Lilian Selby. "I'm freezing."

Whether it was the sun or the smiles, Sydney thawed. "Go, pilgrims," called office workers lunching in the park opposite the city's St. Mary's Cathedral. The pilgrims were "pleasant people who don't swear or brawl," commented reader "Thomas" at the Daily Telegraph website, "and they treat each other with respect." Most of the populace seemed to approve. "People have been high-fiving us in the street," said Sydney Catholic Marcia Moses, who took part in the event.

The Pope's apology for what he termed the "evil" of sexual abuse committed by some clergy was welcomed, although less exuberantly. "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering," Pope Benedict said. John Hennessey, a spokesman for victims of abuse by members of the Christian Brothers order, said he was "absolutely encouraged and delighted" by the apology: "I sincerely congratulate His Holiness for being brave enough to show leadership to the world." Chris MacIsaac, of the group Broken Rites, was less enthusiastic: "Sorry may be a start, but we want to see a lot more."

The pilgrims included many young priests, monks and nuns, and the event is likely to generate more calls to the religious life. At a World Youth Day "vocations expo," business was brisk. Brother Mark McKeon, director of vocations for the De La Salle order, said the order's recruiting campaign had drawn 12,000 website hits in the past few weeks. "Obviously, a vocation like this is not for everyone," McKeon told the Herald Sun newspaper, "but we have noticed that young people seem to want a cause they can commit to."

The Pope who had under-30s shouting and weeping for joy is a firm traditionalist who opposes what he calls "the dictatorship of relativism... whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." At the climactic Mass Sunday morning, he told 300,000 worshipers that the modern world too often marginalized God. The Church "needs your faith, your idealism and your generosity," he said. "Do not be afraid to say yes to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others."

"This event will change Australia, I'm sure of it," said Dave Hanson, president of the God Squad Christian biker gang. "People will start asking questions about Jesus. Their curiosity will grow. This is bigger than Catholicism. This is about the Gospel, the Good News."