Australia has just been through an unsettling plebiscite over same-sex marriage. In the context of a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse, there has been a heightening of anti-Catholic feeling. Last week several skateboarding 19-year-olds lopped the heads off the statues of Mary and Jesus outside my church.
To speak in favour of traditional marriage is tantamount to social suicide. Recent surveys also reveal a distinct drop off in religious practice. The “nones” now outnumber the Catholics and the “traditional” Church of institutions built by Irish Brothers and nuns is fast passing away.
Yet the social media response to the vandalism at my church surprised me. On the same day as the misdeed, hundreds of Maronite youth gathered round the beheaded statue to pray the rosary in reparation for the desecration. Many of them gathered again a few days later for the blessing of the new statues that had been quickly donated to replace those that were damaged.
A few months ago a young Australian man who had left for Mosul in 2010 to study for the priesthood was ordained in Sydney according to the Chaldean Rite by the Archbishop of Mosul. As per the Acts of the Apostles, the church was literally shaking with people and song. Many Iraqi and Syrian Christians are entering Catholic schools. Across the west and south of Sydney there are a growing number of Syro-Malabar families who gather in groups to pray and learn catechesis. The Rex Christian Youth Band has just completed a tour Down Under playing in all the major cities – a kind of Bollywood-meets-Hillsong but Catholic endeavour. This hardly suggests that Australian Catholicism is near death yet.
There has been a resurgence in pockets of young people who are quite fervent in their faith. A recent youth launch in Liverpool (to the south of Sydney) attracted more than 1,000 people to a Mass sung by Samoans.
In a few weeks Sydney will be hosting the Australian Catholic Youth Festival and 19,000 young people will be in attendance. Matt Maher will be playing but there will also be quite a number of local speakers and start-ups, including Orange Sky, whose members travel around the city offering a free laundry service to the homeless. The music is generally upbeat but workshops in Gregorian chant will also be hosted.
University chaplaincies have been instrumental in 50 vocations to priesthood and religious life over the past 15 years. Some of the fruits of those young vocations are now being borne through the renewed interest these well-educated and joy-filled priests and seminarians are generating among teachers and students. As teachers increasingly have to contend with parents who use raising their voice as a modus operandi to get their way, the intellectual tradition of the Church about reasoned argument and care for the truth has a whole new appeal.
If lessons are to be learnt from the past 50 years of post-Vatican II experience, it is the fundamental importance of the encyclicals of Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, to be open to life and to live by objective moral norms. This was a point made by Cardinal Pell some years ago at the ordination of priests. He noted that each priest had come from a life-affirming community rather than a contracepting one.
As Australia prepares for a plenary council in 2020, the outcome of those discussions will depend upon which voices will be heard – the folk laments of the Old World or the ululations of the East.
The Rt Rev Richard Umbers is an auxiliary bishop of Sydney archdiocese. He tweets at @BishopUmbers
This article first appeared in the December 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here