Cross and Icon in Australia’s Heartland

Preparing for Youth Day Aussie Style

By Catherine Smibert

SYDNEY, Australia, NOV. 8, 2007 ( Fifty young Australians confronted issues of social justice and Aboriginal rights as they accompanied the World Youth Day cross and icon of Mary through their country’s heartland.

The Great Crossing Ghan Pilgrimage set out from Darwin in the north, and during six days proceeded southward over the sunburnt Australian landscape before arriving to Port Augusta.

The route was named after The Ghan passenger train, which travels the same north-south route the Afghan camel trains trekked before the advent of the railway.

Many of the indigenous people of Australia participated in this leg of the national journey of the cross and icon, with 10 Aboriginal young people taking part in a special way as pilgrims. Many others from local communities joined in the prayer processions and activities.

Also traveling with the World Youth Day symbols is an Aboriginal message stick, a traditional method of communication among indigenous peoples. The message stick proclaims the message of the youth day and invites all the indigenous people of Australia to the papal event next year.

After visiting the towns of Katherine and Tennant Creek, the young pilgrims arrived to Alice Springs on day 3 of the journey. Their visit the town coincided with the community’s celebrations of the 21st anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the area as part of his tour of Australia in 1986.

The cross and icon stood at the site where chapel is to be built in remembrance of the visit. Locals wore T-shirts citing a quote John Paul II said that day, “For thousands of years you have lived in this land, and fashioned a culture that endures to this day.”

Next on the itinerary was the town of Santa Teresa, 80 km (49 miles) west of Alice Springs. This community was originally set up as a mission on the land of the indigenous Arrernte people, and is now home to around 600 people.

The pilgrims made a short trip to the iconic landmark Uluru on day 5, also known as Ayers Rock, located in the very center of the expansive red desert planes. The group elevated the cross in front of the sandstone formation, which stands 348 meters (1,142 feet) high.

Before leaving Uluru, the youth had a question-and-answer session with Aboriginal elder Bob Randall, known in his community as Uncle Bob. The elder, who starred in the award winning documentary “Kanyini,” watched the film with the pilgrims, and discussed afterward with the youth the treatment of the indigenous people in Australia. He commented on how the early Anglo settlers appropriated land belonging to the indigenous peoples, and removed children from their aboriginal families in the 1920s and 1930’s, known as “the stolen generation.”

Then literally in the middle of the desert in the town of Coober Pedy, the cross and icon had to go underground.

Here the red earth is blotched with piles of white dirt from the opal mines — it’s the opal mining capital of the world — and due to the heat of the desert, many of the houses and even the Catholic Church are actually built beneath the earth!

With the peace and beauty it holds within its stone underground walls, the church is a stark contrast to the arid, windy environment outside — a sensation of protection and peace that the pilgrims reflected on after Mass.

In Woomera, the 50 young Australians walked the cross and icon through the dry heat of the barren region, past the now closed Woomera Detention Center.

They also paused at the cemetery that holds the remains of many of children and babies, possibly affected by nuclear testing in the 1960s and 1970s. They appealed to Mary for her prayers here and blessed the graves with holy water.

Geraldine, a Pilgrim on the Ghan journey commented on her experience, “Before I was blessed with the opportunity to walk with the WYD Cross and Icon, I would not have thought that the sacrifice and challenge involved being a pilgrim could lead to such a spiritual experience.”

“I have never felt so deeply thankful for everything in my life,” she added “and the sacred land of Australia which has become my home.”

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Down at the Pub

The young people of Sydney have been attending a variety of activities in order to prepare for World Youth Day next July, but none have been so popular as the monthly gathering at P.J. Gallagher’s Pub.

It’s Theology on Tap in Australia, and it began with a bang last August. The 19-year-old founder, Patrick Langrell, reports that the series has a mailing list of already 800 people, and that attendence per event is at least 200.

The Web site alone attracts over 100 hits per day.

Langrell, a law student at Sydney’s Catholic University of Notre Dame, says that with World Youth Day approaching, and after hearing of the success of the program in other cities like Denver, Colorado, and Rome, he couldn’t resist trying it out down under.

“I realized that I have never been to an event in Sydney which really attracted people to air their questions and issues about the Catholic faith in a comfortable and non-threatening environment,” he told me.

“A lot of young people in Sydney are going through a spiritual drought, and Theology on Tap was, I saw, a possible faith quencher for so many young people who sometimes feel that they don’t have answers anymore.”

Langrell and his team feel that the environment sets the ideal scene for the social construct on which the World Youth Day in Sydney itself is based, insisting on the principal that friendship is integral for evangelization.

"Theology on Tap, in itself, is a fantastic event, but it is not an end in itself — just like the World Youth Day,” said the student. “The friendships that are formed in the event and between the events are there so that young people can help others grow in their faith.”

And Langrell’s hope that Theology on Tap indeed fosters such genuine and sanctifying friendships between young people is being realized, according to 21-year-old Philomena Smith.

Smith told me: “Theology on Tap does a magnificent job of mixing a social element with a spiritual talk which is interesting, fulfilling and most importantly, engaging. … I find myself chatting to my friends, new and old, for quite some time afterward about each topic presented.”

And it’s not just the like-minded Catholics who are return visitors but people from other denominations and faiths.

David Chapman, a 23-year-old medical student, who is also Anglican, is considering a conversion to the Catholic Church. He identified that it was “the loving atmosphere and Scripturally driven teachings that Theology on Tap provides” as being integral to his new interest in Catholicism.

“Theology on Tap is a great way to passively evangelize in an atmosphere that is usually devoid of any deep spirituality,” he added. “The use of such a public place has allowed members of the general public to be soaked in God’s word without being aware of it.”

Chapman’s friend Elise Jackson, a 23-year-old raised in the Pentecostal Church, feels the same way, noting that “while we both still have plenty of questions, we have found one place where we know they will at least be addressed.”

Langrell said that even the bar staff is showing interest, along with people who just come in off the street.

And will there a Theology on Tap at World Youth Day? An application has submitted, and Langrell hopes that a large meeting of 2,000-3,000 young people and a high-profile speaker could be included as part of the Youth Festival in Parramatta.

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Catherine Smibert is a freelance writer in Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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