On Sunday Pope Benedict will announce that Madrid will be the World Youth Day host city for the next event in 2011. The focus will then shift from Cardinal George Pell and Sydney, as the Catholic world focuses its attention to another battleground in the fight to resurrect a dying religion’s popularity. Spain is, for the Vatican, the last bastion.

Not only is Spain experiencing the usual drop in Catholic adherence, but the country now has a socialist government within a society that is very liberal. Abortion, divorce and gay marriage are all legal, so the Church must make some inroads to reverse these trends.

Leading the charge will be some of the most right-wing and conservative elements of the Church. The elite Opus Dei with their stranglehold on power in the Vatican will of course be there but not far behind are the newer and more youthful right-wing organisations. And they are all here in Sydney.

From the outside, this big youth day event appears to be a religion united, but nothing could be further from the truth. Such is the rift between the right-wing and more liberal elements of the Catholic Church many within are busting at the seams to come out and say what they think.

To understand the politics of what is happening domestically, it is vital to understand that Pell isn’t particularly popular among your rank-and-file Catholics and this whole World Youth Day event is less about the Pope, and more about our local Cardinal boosting his career opportunities in the Vatican and impressing the people that matter.

With the Pope by his side, he can hurl a few two-fingered salutes to the liberal members of the congregation. Aside from Opus Dei, one of the organisations prominent in youth day events is a big contingent of neocatecumenals, an extremely conservative organisation that emerged out of Spain and has spread to more than 105 countries and more than 860 parishes worldwide. I understand that 40,000 neocatecumenal pilgrims have descended on Australia, 3000 from Spain.

For a moment, forget about all the Guy Sebastian, hippy type guitar events, this World Youth Day is largely influenced by restorationist Vatican I theology. Out with new fangled liberal views on environmental concerns, the role of women in the Church, contraceptives and gays and in with Opus Dei, Eucharistic Adoration, aggressive evangelism, relics of stigmatics and a host of rites that haven’t been seen in Australia since the introduction of Vatican II.

Cardinal Pell will be presiding over a meeting of the neocatecumenals on Monday and has asked them to make the Gospel spread around Australia and provide some spiritual help for a country that has some “very serious problems”.

For the left of the Church these associations are having some very practical and alarming consequences. Stephen Crittenden reported in last week’s episode of the ABC’s Religion Report, that in one instance “the Jesuits have been ordered to withdraw their plan to host a forum with the gay Catholic group Acceptance and PFlag, the organisation for parents and friends of young gays and lesbians”.

All this will very pleasing for the Opus Dei members in the Vatican.

As soon as the Pope arrived, Pell swiftly transported him to Australia’s Opus Dei headquarters. Pell is one of its 500 or so members in Australia. Opus Dei isn’t particularly popular here and is at odds with many.

“There is a great dissatisfaction with the Restorationist spirituality, which is also devoid of any commitment to social justice,” Fr Confeggi, a parish priest in the outer Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Many of the kids flying in from all over the world would be unaware of this theological undercurrent. Nevertheless, they will be the ones taking part in these baroque rituals that will not necessarily take them closer to God, but will move them toward the Opus Dei view of the Church.

At one stage, George Pell even wanted to get the Catholic conservative and sometime racist Mel Gibson to direct the WYD Stations of the Cross ritual. It never happened, but we are getting close to the type of doctrines exposed on the youth walking around Sydney with their red back packs.

And none of this even comes close to the worries within the Church over the cost. It’s costing the Church an estimated $150 million on top of the $86 million that NSW taxpayers are throwing in. The left of the Church might have other ideas for where they would rather spend that money. Let’s see how they go in Madrid in three years time.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.