Pope Benedict XVI is 81. The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, is 67. The median age of Australia's regular Catholic churchgoers is 58. The quarter-million pilgrims who've flocked to Sydney to celebrate World Youth Day are, well... young. But the 2,000-year-old Church that still prints official documents in Latin and the 20-year-olds snapping photos of the Pope on disposable cameras seem to be having a blast together. "The task of young people is to bring fire into the Church," Pell said on Wednesday, after joining 4,400 priests and 145,000 exuberant worshipers for Mass beside Sydney Harbour.
The pilgrims are happy to oblige. At a rock concert after the service, they formed conga lines and sang along to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Next day, when the Pope disembarked from a "boat-a-cade" on Sydney Harbor to address the crowds for the first time, the shouts and cheers out-decibeled any rock show.
Australia is an apt venue for World Youth Day, the Pope said, because its Church is "the youngest on any continent." The oldest pontiff to be elected since the 18th century is reputed to own an iPod and sends a daily SMS message to pilgrims, signing off "BXVI." Young people in turn have been invited to send text messages for display on giant "prayer wall" screens around the city. Event coordinator Bishop Anthony Fisher says planners want to make WYD memorable "by using new ways to connect with today's tech-savvy youth."
Technology, sadly, is not all today's youth are savvy about. In his address, the Pope lamented the "confusion" and "despair" caused by alcohol, drug abuse, violence, sexual degradation and a corrosive consumerism "where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experiences displace truth." Resisting the hedonism of other teens is "hard," says Matt McHugh, of Hartford, Wisconsin, who's wearing jeans and a black Nirvana T-shirt. "You see other kids doing things and it looks fun and it's tempting, but then you look at where that's going to lead." Brenda Breuer, also from Hartford, agrees: "You know what's right and wrong, but other people may not have the same values and morals as you. They say, Come on, it's really fun, and you just have to say, I'll have my own fun, thanks. But it makes you feel separate from them."
For Michael Leone, from Perth, Western Australia, a sense of connection has been one of the best things about coming to World Youth Day. "We've met so many people from everywhere," Leone says. "They just come up and introduce themselves. Being with other people with similar values and interests really helps." Says Jackie Jones, from Blaine, Minnesota: "The hardest part is not coming here. Here we're with thousands of people who share our values. The hardest part will be going back."