July 19, 2008
The Canberra Times

God lives at Bondi Junction and Pilgrim Girl is full of joy

In the city ”invaded by joy” it seems God can be found just about everywhere. According to one 17-year-old pilgrim from Melbourne, God resides at Bondi Junction: ”God, the shops are good there,” she told me, breathless with joy.

Funny that. Westfield Bondi Junction is the very ”temple of affluenza” that Clive Hamilton wants to knock down. He reckons it’s the quintessential icon of modern Australia that sends us to hell in a shopping bag.

But for Pilgrim Girl, and her fellow ”turtle backs” – ”We all look like bloody turtles wearing these red, orange and yellow WYD backpacks” – this new found Westfield is a taste of heaven.

So what’s a young World Youth Day pilgrim doing shopping when the rest of Sydney’s youth invasion is praying? ”Oh, we couldn’t get into the Mass, there were too many people,” she says. ”So we got a bus to Bondi Junction instead.”

So where were she and her fellow 20 pilgrims from a Catholic girls’ college in Melbourne going to be when the Pope made his first appearance at Darling Harbour? ”We’re going to Taronga zoo,” she says, without even a blink of irony.

It’s easy to be fooled by the happy clapping, joyous singing and the general Popemania that’s filled the news media this week. But don’t be. There’s a lot a love happening, but it’s not necessarily of the deeply devotional kind.

For some pilgrims Jesus has been a kind of omnipresent matchmaker: an excuse to bring a big bunch of young people together to sing, dance and hug.

Pilgrim Girl is ecstatic about the joy in the streets and the free hugs. ”This must be like the friendliest place on Earth. Everyone is like hugging everyone.”

Now, coming from an all-girls’ school, scenes like this can be quite intoxicating. I know. I was a little pilgrim myself once, albeit a very young one.

Decked out in my blue leotard and polyester kaftan, I got to join the liturgical dance in front of the altar, right near the Pope. Later I told my mum I had seen God. It wasn’t an epiphany. I simply mistook the guy in the long white dress for God himself. I suppose I was too young to know the difference.

While Pilgrim Girl will probably catch up with the Pope tomorrow – ”If we can get in to the Mass” – she and her gaggle of girls aren’t too worried about missing out. There are so many other boys to occupy their girly devotions. ”All the boys are so hot, and everyone is so happy. It’s just amazing.”

Pilgrim Girl’s gang has linked arms and danced with some Irish boys; sung with some Argentine chaps; and hugged some French hunks. ”Oh, that was hot! I’ve always wanted to hug a French boy.”

It’s all pretty innocent, frivolous and fun, which is to be expected among the several hundred thousand young people. What’s perhaps less expected is some of the funny and oddly frivolous utterances by the not so young. Take, for example, the home-town Catholic chief himself, Cardinal George Pell.

Early in the week Pell held a media conference in which he addressed a number of hot topics. One of them was climate change. Despite the Pope flagging this as an issue of concern and speaking of ”our responsibility towards creation”, Pell said he was a ”bit of a sceptic”, but that he was ”open to evidence”.

It’s a very odd and rather silly thing for a Catholic leader to protest he needs ”evidence” to believe in something, when much of Christianity is founded on beliefs for which there is not a shred of ”evidence” – such as the resurrection of Jesus, and the immaculate conception. Short of showing us Mary’s intact hymen in a jar, a belief in the virgin birth is simply ridiculous, and unnecessary.

Yet Pell’s Catholicism is fixed on such a thing as being an historical truth.

But at the same time, the ample documented evidence about global warming just doesn’t cut it with this main of faith.

Another rather silly suggestion from Pell was his call to young people to populate or perish. He insists the Western world is suffering a ”population crisis”, and divorce and promiscuity are to blame.

Unsurprisingly, Pell was short on ”evidence” to back that up.

But at a time when many underdeveloped and impoverished Christian nations – such as our near neighbour East Timor – are battling with fertility rates that are way too high, calling on your flock to breed more hungry mouths is blatantly irresponsible and unconstructive. And even worse, is a doctrine that preaches against contraception.

Surely as one who is ”open to evidence” Pell can see the damage done to poverty-stricken women who have no access to contraception.

It’s appalling to see tens of thousands of malnourished children dropping dead in Ethiopia right now. The fact is – they shouldn’t have been born.

As a student traveller in Central America I watched in awe as Catholic pilgrims crawled their way into cathedrals that were dripping in gold ornaments and blood-curdling statues. Among the poorest people on that continent, some of the pilgrims travelled for hours on their knees, with babies tied to their back, to place their last pesos in the altar box. After some fierce praying, and if they were lucky a pat on the head by a man of cloth, they’d leave that dark place empty-handed and in bare feet.

I was the same age as Pilgrim Girl when I watched these scenes. Perhaps it’s what encouraged me to be like Pell – ”a bit of a sceptic”, but with a twist, and a good eye for ”evidence”.

For Pilgrim Girl and her gang I’m glad they’ve had a wonderful time in the city ”invaded by joy”. I only wish for them – it could last.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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