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A spectacular show

Nick Bryant | 07:32 UK time, Sunday, 20 July 2008

How do you measure the success of an event like Catholic World Youth Day?

popemobile_getty226b.jpgIf it is in the enthusiasm and devotion of its participants, then the Vatican will have deemed this an enormous triumph. Waving their national flags, strumming their guitars and performing their dances, the 225,000 pilgrims have stamped their personalities and spirituality on this city. Their flame-coloured rucksacks have added a splash of colour.

One of the main aims of this event is to strengthen pilgrims' faith in a manner which safeguards the future of the Roman Catholic church. At the climactic papal mass, which was celebrated at Randwick racecourse in Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, spoke of how the pilgrims were "alive with evangelical energy", and how young priests were "eager to preach an ancient faith".

But the Vatican will have to wait to see if the fervour that we've seen in Sydney translates into young men applying for the priesthood or young women showing a desire to become nuns. It needs them. Here in Australia, the shortage of priests has led to the twinning of parishes.

Catholicism remains Australia's biggest religion or denomination, with almost 28% of the population describing themselves as Catholic.

If WYD is judged by its staging and spectacle, the organisers will no doubt be delighted. With Sydney providing a uniquely telegenic backdrop, pictures of staggering beauty have beamed around the world.

Certainly, the event has been intricately and extravagantly choreographed, from the arrival of the Pope on board his papal boat-cade, with his robes billowing like a spinnaker in the wind, to the Stations of the Cross, the dramatic depiction of Christ's last hours on earth, which was performed in outdoor sites around the city. Sydney and the Roman Catholic Church - both know how to put on a spectacular show.

The Pope called it "an unforgettable experience". Throughout the week, his image was beamed on to one of the stone pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

So, impressive public pageantry - but what of the public atonement? Departing from the homily given to reporters ahead of time, Pope Benedict said he was "deeply sorry" for the "evil" of the sexual abuse scandal involving members of the Australian Catholic priesthood.

His comments were stronger than those delivered in America in April, but he did not meet the victims of abuse, as he did in the US.

That has angered victims, who wanted to hear directly from the Pope. Broken Rites, the main victims group here, also wanted the Pope to criticise Australian bishops for what they claim has been their mishandling of the scandal.

Victims were incensed by the comments of Bishop Anthony Fisher, the World Youth Day co-ordinator, who said they should not "dwell crankily" on old wounds.

What of the demonstrations from the NoToPope coalition, protesting the Vatican's stance on birth control, homosexuality and abortion? Much of the heat was taken out of the protests when the federal court quashed special regulations brought in by the New South Wales government which threatened heavy penalties for offending the pilgrims.

Protesters lobbed a few condoms in the direction of some pilgrims, and fashioned a popemobile of their own, but the demonstrations did not amount to much.

The federal and New South Wales governments have apparently spent A$160 million ($200 million) for the event. No doubt there will be a lively public debate over the coming week about whether it was all worth it.

Thanks for all your comments on the blog earlier this week, especially from Chris Sidoti, who was quoted in the original piece. Has anything you have seen, heard or witnessed changed the way you think, or reinforced your thinking? Or, put another way, how was it all for you?

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