Forget s-x abuse scandals, bouts of flu and gastro, traffic hold-ups and the rest. The big takeout from last week’s celebrations is that “faith is fun”.
World Youth Day (WYD) has re-positioned the Catholic Church, two millennia old, as alive and well and relevant to a whole new generation of enthusiastic adherents, millions of them, around the world.
That’s a remarkable achievement.
Christianity, especially in the West, has been under severe attack for some years now from atheist crusaders like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is not great: How religion poisons everything) and, closer to home, Phillip Adams (Adams vs God).
At face value, the Church should be out of date and on the way out. Celibacy, all-male hierarchies, opposition to birth control, abhorrence of homos-xuality, miracles, intelligent design — it’s all stuff that sits so oddly with the ordinary values of contemporary society.
But through all this, the Catholic Church, like the British monarchy, has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and stay relevant while holding on to the age-old traditions that act like a security blanket for many people.
Part of the trick, of course, is the old Roman idea of ‘bread and circuses’. The Catholic Church is, after all, a vestige of the old Roman Empire from which it borrowed much of its administrative structure.
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WYD is a bloody good show. Hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world having fun without drugs or alcohol provides remarkable images in a media that is otherwise saturated with all that alcopop binge horror epidemic stuff. Those WYD pictures are the most hopeful we’ve seen for quite a while.
The Pope also got his political messages right. He congratulated the Rudd Government on national sorry day, he positioned the Church beautifully on climate change and he handled the s-x abuse problem with great skill.
Moreover, the Pope played straight to the Church’s strength. He spoke out against materialism and urged people to lead ‘deeper’ lives.
A few decades ago, in the midst of the biggest surge in material well-being in human history, only hippies and other crackpots talked along these lines but now it is a mainstream community concern.
Nevertheless, few people are ready to embrace poverty and a life of self-denial. So the idea that you can be part of the Church and have ‘fun’, and be spiritual at the same time, is a real winner.
Great positioning, great messages, a great show and wildly appealing television images. In PR, it doesn’t get any better than that.