Hello Again, Sydney

One Sydney-sider's experiences moving back to Sydney after a long absence overseas.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

City of God?

"Pilgrims on the streets at Central, pilgrims on the streets in Darlinghurst, and the music that they constantly play..." OK, OK, no more crap reworking of Smiths lyrics - you get the idea. Last week Sydney had the dual honour of hosting World Youth Day and welcoming the Pope. The city was flooded with worshippers from all over the world; in fact, according to my mum, there were over half a million visitors - more than we had for the Olympics. To me, that sounds unlikely. Religion pulling a bigger crowd than a sporting event? Not in Australia, mate!

Still, here they all were, waving flags and chanting in the street. It was quite odd to sit in the office and hear songs of praise and joy drifting in from outside. Not very Sydney. (One co-worker's rather unchristian comment: "Go and find a football match!")

I actually enjoyed the injection of spiritual energy in what must be the world's least mystical city. Too often our laidback, down-to-earth nature can make it feel like we're shackled to the ground, to the ordinary. At one stage I even had my heart set on writing a ghost story in Sydney, just for the incongruousness of it.

I didn't see the Pope, but I did see the Popemobile, empty and on its way to the airport with police escort. Can't imagine you'd get far in a stolen popemobile without getting noticed, but then you wouldn't have to stop when the police threatened to shoot. Just picture the scene on the evening news: the holy vehicle pursued by police cars across the harbour bridge...

The pilgrims all seemed to enjoy themselves, though I wasn't sure what they got up to between masses. Bible study? No, really. For all my potshots at an easy target, their euphoria is probably not that disimilar to what I get from going to an event like Glastonbury. Their ecstasy, however, may be different. (Sorry. Couldn't resist!)

It's got to be an important event for the Catholic church in terms of recruitment, too. Surely they've got some great minds, and kick-ass ad men, helping bring future generations into the flock. I'm actually en route to London as I write this (for a bit of secular euphoria at a friends' wedding and The Big Chill festival) and on the first leg I sat next to a priest who had been at World Youth Day and was on his way back to his mission in Calcutta. Although the actual religion bit leaves me cold, I can only admire the guy's conviction to his calling - and envy some of the conditions he works under. A vow of poverty may sound grim, but imagine never having to spend another second of your life thinking about tax returns, phone bills or salary reviews. Or fashion! As he said to me, when he gets dressed up for congregation, it's either the grey shirt or the grey shirt. Probably not the angle to use on the fashion-conscious youth of today, but it sold me.