Though it is winter in Australia, the sun was shining on Sydney Harbor, one of the most beautiful urban landscapes in the world. With the dramatic architectural lines of the famous Sydney Opera House outlined against the sky-blue horizon and reflecting on the glistening sea, I couldn't wait to hop the ferry to Manley and from there walk to the crashing ocean to watch the surfers climb the waves. I love this place, and though I was suffering a bit of jet lag from the 18-hour trip from Washington, D.C., I knew this first day would be my best chance to get out on the water before the busy schedule began. I am here to do the Australian book and speaking tour for The Great Awakening -- which has a different title in both Australia and the U.K., Seven Ways to Change the World -- and to meet with the country's church and political leaders.
As the ferry headed across the harbor, I remembered fondly the first time I had seen these waters. I was rushing around the city of Sydney doing speaking and interviews, and I kept asking my hosts if we could go down to look at the harbor between appointments. Two of my guides were Aboriginals and began laughing at me. When I asked what was so funny, they told me that this harbor was a sacred place to the Indigenous People of Australia and that my attraction to it was spiritual. And, indeed, it still feels that way.
This time the ferry was packed with young people wearing backpacks. They were leftovers from World Youth Day, which had just concluded in Sydney. The event was highlighted with a historic visit from Pope Benedict XVI. Almost 300,000 young pilgrims had come to this land called "down under" from around the world, and the main mass had drawn 500,000 worshipers. This is a very secular country, but everybody was talking about the positive impact the presence of so many young people was having on the city of Sydney and all around Australia. Stories of warm welcomes, bright smiles, wonderful conversations, open spirits, and, most of all, a real sense of hope filled the streets and the massive media coverage of the event.
With all the problems of institutional religion, including in the Catholic church, many have been expecting that more and more young people would be turning "secular."
Indeed, my first media interviewers here asked about the attraction of the "new atheism" as a reaction against the failures of religion and of the American Religious Right in particular. But I kept getting nodding heads from reporters when I pointed out that the answer to bad religion isn't necessarily secularism -- it's perhaps better religion.
In the pope's homily, he addressed the challenges of secularism, greed, materialism, and injustice, while pointing to the alternative the gospel provides:
Empowered by the Spirit, and drawing upon faith's rich vision, a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God's gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished - not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed. A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships.
In his welcome to the Pontiff, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, himself a confessing Christian, impressed the crowd with his own "homily":
Your Holiness, you are also welcome in Australia, a welcome guest for the wider Australian Christian community. You are also welcome in Australia on behalf of those Australians of other faiths and indeed for the general Australian community at large.
Your Holiness, you are welcome as an apostle of peace in an age where in an increasingly interdependent world peace is a much-needed voice among us all. You are welcome as a voice for the world's poor. You are also welcome as a voice of hope at a time in our planet's dealings when hope is most needed of all.
The kids on the boat were an absolute pleasure to watch and to be around, which isn't always the case with all aspects of youth culture. They were happy, even joyful, and thoroughly enjoying the spectacular harbor vistas before us. Apparently, my young Aboriginal hosts had been right decades ago about this sacred place.
I've often said that there are two great hungers in our world today: the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social justice. The connection between the two is compelling, especially for this new generation. You could see that in these young faces and hear it in their conversations. While the beauty of Sydney Harbor has been described as almost magical, this day's combination of God's stunning creation and the possibilities of the next generation seemed to me more spiritual -- and very hopeful.