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By Francis X. Rocca
c. 2008 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY — The last time Pope Benedict XVI traveled overseas, to the United States in April, he received a warm and reverent welcome, and went home more popular than when he arrived.
This Saturday (July 12), Benedict travels to Australia for what will be only the fourth papal visit in the country’s history.
Political and religious leaders down under have voiced pride and enthusiasm over the papal visit, which is organized around Catholic World Youth Day in Sydney, a five-day festival expected to draw at least 225,000 participants, more than half of them from abroad.
Yet during the pope’s time in Australia, which is one of the most secular lands on Earth, his message will be competing for attention with protests against Catholic teaching on abortion, birth control and homosexuality, as well as fresh controversy over clerical sex abuse.
After an initial three-day rest period at a rural retreat run by the Catholic organization Opus Dei, the pope will conduct the sorts of meetings expected of a papal visit, including sessions with national and local officials, Catholic bishops, leaders of other religions and a group of disabled young people.
In a distinctively Australian spectacle, a group of young Aboriginal performers will greet Benedict with traditional songs and dances upon his arrival in Sydney.
The visit will culminate in an open-air papal Mass celebrated at a Sydney racetrack on Sunday (July 20), the day before the pope heads back to Rome.
“My sense is that Benedict is going to be a big hit,” said Tracey Rowland, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. “Australia is a country — a continent — that is so geographically isolated that when someone as important as the pope comes to visit, it is a cause for national pride.”
It is such pride, rather than religious piety, that will generate much of the excitement. Although Australia’s population is 26 percent Catholic, a recent study by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation found that the nation is one of the most secular in the world. Only 25 percent of Australians describe themselves as deeply religious, and 28 percent say they are not religious at all (compared to 62 percent and 11 percent, respectively, in the U.S.).
A vociferous minority of Australians are not merely indifferent but actively hostile to parts of Benedict’s message. Gay-rights activists have announced plans to protest the pope’s presence by distributing condoms outside the papal Mass.
Seeking to prevent embarrassing scenes, local authorities have invoked special police powers that will allow them to fine protesters more than $5,000 for causing “annoyance or inconvenience” to World Youth Day participants.
Civil libertarians say they will challenge the measure in court, and on Thursday (July 10), protesters in Sydney held what they billed as an “annoying” fashion show, featuring T-shirts intended to offend the pope and his devotees.
Also threatening to distract from the pope’s visit is the issue of clerical sex abuse. At least 3,500 Australians have reported being molested by priests, according to one advocacy group, and a former auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Geoffrey Robinson, recently provoked the church’s ire with a book that is highly critical of the church’s response to the problem.
Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell has voiced hopes that Benedict will apologize to Australian victims of clerical sex abuse during his visit, as he did to American Catholics in April. But last week, Pell himself was drawn into the scandal with the revelation that in 2003 he had misled a sex abuse victim about the record of his assailant.
As incendiary and sensational as such topics may be, says one longtime observer, the main cause for dissatisfaction with the pope’s visit could be something as mundane as local politics.
“The papers have taken the opportunity of the security arrangements that are going to block the city, and also the costs of the event, to attack the government,” said Desmond O’Grady, Rome correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. “So in a way, the church is caught in the middle.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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