The city will not know what hit it when World Youth Day begins next year, says Dan McA loon
The RSVPs keep coming in from the world's pilgrims in the tens of thousands. Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed that he is definitely coming. The cross and icon have begun a yearlong pilgrimage around Australia accompanied by an aboriginal message stick. And as for those flighty thoroughbreds, stamping their feet and threatening the vigil and papal Mass, they have been quietened and led away — for now, at least.
It's a year until the Archdiocese of Sydney hosts World Youth Day 2008 and the organising committee says everything is running smoothly. Let's pray it's so. Not that the city really knows what is about to hit it come July next year, when anything upwards of 150,000 overseas pilgrims, the papal entourage, and 3,000 international reporters turn this town "Catholic" for a week.
The fact is that outside the Catholic parishes, neither the reality of WYD08, nor its pentecostal theme of bearing witness to Christ, is being digested by the local population in a city where surf, sunshine, and hedonism conspire to make a lifestyle as untroubled to the soul as an episode of Neighbours is to the eyes.
Sydneysiders understand a street party all right — every year, the Gay Mardi Gras Parade brings throngs of cheering onlookers to the barricades. But what will those folk think when the solemnity of the Stations of the Cross is being enacted on these same streets?
No one can guess because most of them are ignorant of WYD08. Until now the local media's coverage has been limited to reporting the simmering dispute between horse trainers and the New South Wales (NSW) government over closing off Randwick Racecourse for the WYD vigil and papal Mass. Though Randwick has been the site of three previous papal Masses, for WYD08 the organisers require an unprecedented period of 10 weeks to completely remake (and restore) the venue, removing all rails, and installing in the centre of the course a stage and altar the size of a football field.
Claiming their livelihood was in peril in the lead-up to the spring racing season, the trainers loudly sought legal advice, claiming that the tenant, the Australian Jockey Club, had exceeded its authority in negotiating the deal without their consent. The eyebrows-raising figure of £21 million in damages was circulated in the press.
However, now the NSW government, which owns the Crown land, has put a lid on any further legal action by reminding all parties that it has all the power it needs to bring the Pope to Randwick under a special WYD Act of Parliament passed earlier this year.
Distracting as the publicity around the dispute was, WYD08 organisers were themselves but hapless bystanders. Their only request to the government had been to find a venue that, for liturgical reasons, would allow all worshippers an unrestricted view of the altar. Big television screens couldn't suffice throwing out every purpose-built stadium erected for the 2000 Olympics and bringing the government back to suggesting Randwick as the best place to hold the papal Mass. Predictions are that the Mass could be attended by as many as 600,000 worshippers. But at even half this amount it would be the largest single gathering of people in Australian history. Meanwhile, organisers have been inundated by overseas interest in event. The WYD08 site has had to date over 31 million hits and the anthem "Receive the Power", launched in early July, has been downloaded over 14,000 times.
All this raises the green issue that WYD08 organisers have yet to articulate. When he invited the whole Catholic family to Sydney, Cardinal George Pell reminded them that forward planning was essential. He joked: "You can't just get on a bus in Warsaw and drive here." He's right. But if the figure of 150,000 inbound pilgrims predicted is reached that equates to 287 fully loaded jumbo jets. People flying from Britain could be in the air for 25 hours. Such a flight will generate seven to eight tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted at high altitudes into the earth's atmosphere. All together those round trips alone could account for 4,020 tonnes of CO2 directly attributable to WYD08's international appeal.
On its website WYD08 has announced an "environmental sustainability strategy" that commits it to "minimising the environmental impact" of the event and its activities. The web page promises updates as the WYD08 green policy evolves over the next year. But achieving a "carbon-neutral" WYD08 seems doubtful. At WYD in Cologne, Germany, the organisers admitted that this goal was beyond them. But news of the impending destruction of life caused by human-induced climate change has grown much louder since then. Surveys show that climate change is today one of our children's greatest fears for the world they are to inherit. Resisting its causes is the duty of life-affinning Catholics worldwide. It is the prophetic call to "ecological conversion" that John Paul II urged for all of us. And so the opportunity and effort required to make WYDOS environmentally responsible exists.
Cost of air fares aside, the organisers are winning popularity with overseas pilgrims by offering registration packages that range in price from £21 for lowincome Oceania countries to £170 for developed counties, which includes a week's accommodation as well as all meals, transport, visas and health insurance.
The registration of overseas pilgrim groups continues to surprise organisers. One year out, numbers of inbound pilgrims is climbing towards 130,000 people. It seems entirely likely that with the recent opening of online registrations for individuals — the Pope being registration number one — the total of overseas pilgrims could exceed 150,000.
Again, outside Australia's Catholic communities and the NSW government — which is providing public transport, police, communications, and logistics to the event — no one seems to be aware that this human wave is about to break over Bondi Beach.