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An Adventist at a Catholic Festival?

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I stood in a rippling sea of colour, as people from 170 nations waved arms and flags to the stirring anthem, “Receive the Power”. It was the largest youth festival in the world, and this year was the largest local gathering of people in Australia’s history. Yet it was not a rock concert, a sporting event, nor a drunken binge; but a spiritual journey. Youth came “to explore their faith more deeply, to spend time in prayer and reflection with each other and with His Holiness, and to rediscover the love of God.” (Code of Ethics)

World Youth Day (WYD) is an international event organised by the Roman Catholic Church, and aimed at youth and young adults (age 16–35). Started by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and presently running every 3 years, this year it ran from July 15–20 in Sydney, Australia. It drew 110,000 international visitors, and perhaps 400,000 for the final Mass. There was a surprising level of Protestant and even Seventh-day Adventist involvement! Why go?

Why would an Adventist go to a Catholic festival? My main reason was to observe the events firsthand, and to interact with Catholic people face-to-face. I feel secure in my beliefs as a Protestant, evangelical, and Adventist, so am not afraid to step outside my comfort zone. Sceptical of past hostilities, I sought to discover whether young Catholics actually believed all the traditional Catholic beliefs; after all, my young Adventist friends reject the narrow-minded parts of their tradition. But of course an official source like the Catechism would not tell you this.

As the official Adventist statement on Catholicism states, “Adventists seek to be fair in dealing with others. Thus, while we remain aware of the historical record and continue to hold our views regarding end-time events, we recognize some positive changes in recent Catholicism, and stress the conviction that many Roman Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.” (1997) In that vein, I looked forward to actually enjoying the event, as it is a festival of youth and faith after all!
Lead up

The yearlong “Journey of the [WYD] Cross and Icon” around Australia promoted the event, a parallel of the Olympic Torch for the Olympics. As part of the signup process, I joined the “Hearts4Christ” youth group from a nearby Catholic church, recommended to me as “vibrant”. I met with their priest “Father Paul” twice, and joined the group for a hike up the local Mt. Dandenong with a replica of the WYD Cross, symbolically conquering Melbourne for Christ.

The pre-programs “Days in the Dioceses” ran from Thursday 10th July till Monday 14th in dozens of locations around Australia and New Zealand, “a cultural exchange in the context of faith.” Our group hosted delegates from the small African nations of Zambia and Réunion, whose trip was sponsored. The pinnacle of the Melbourne program was Mass at the Telstra Dome sports stadium on the Friday night. The service was ceremonial and surprisingly reverent for a stadium, yet shifted to celebration surprisingly quickly afterwards, due to the Zambians’ influence!

I paid $A395 for the week, not including transport from Melbourne. The package included accommodation, meals, public transport within Sydney, and a backpack which contained a bandanna, abbreviated Catechism, Luke and Acts, a book of photographs by (Protestant) Ken Duncan, and other goodies. The government contributed over $A160 million; mainly through services such as policing, transport, and compensation to the racing industry (the expected economic returns were similar). The Church was expected to spend a further $A115 million on the event, in addition to $A75 million from pilgrims.

Is this the mixing of church and state feared by Adventists? “World Youth Day does not compromise the separation of church and state” reassured Sydney Anglican leader Phillip Jensen (Sydney Morning Herald, May 27). His letter was broadly affirmed by Chester Stanley, the leader of the Adventist church in Australia (Record, June 28). While both leaders have concerns about Catholic theology, they affirmed their right to worship freely.

Sydney

On Monday, 300 buses convoyed Melbournians to Sydney, a record transport effort. Following many delays we arrived after midnight… without our luggage. However hardships should be expected on a “pilgrimage”, and “A Pilgrim’s Prayer” in the Pilgrim Journal was prophetic: “…If some things do not happen on schedule, as per the itinerary Lord, may I remember – I am a pilgrim not a tourist!” Our lodging was a Catholic primary school, where the principal, and some parents and teachers volunteered their time to accommodate us. With around 80 in our group, I was the only one without a Catholic upbringing or relatives.

I admired the group’s devotion to prayer, and happily recited “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9–13) with them. We also shared the classic Apostles’ Creed, with a few subtle differences, for example the Roman church understands “Catholic” where Protestants use “catholic” (literally universal). However I could not in good conscience “Hail Mary”. Although partly based on Luke 1:28, 31, Protestants believe Jesus is the only mediator between God and people (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:5). In addition, Adventists believe she is presently “asleep” until the resurrection. But to the Catholics’ credit, more emphasis was placed on Jesus than Mary. Also I did not make the sign of the cross by touching four points on my chest – there was no biblical objection, but out of habit and culture I did not feel I had to compromise.

Breakfast on Tuesday revealed the first surprising Adventist involvement. Meals had an Australian theme – including meat pies, lamingtons and Australia’s most popular breakfast cereal – Weet-Bix! The latter is produced by the Sanitarium Health Food Company owned by the Adventist Church. Under a commercial agreement, it provided over 300,000 portions each of Weet-Bix Crunch and Granola Clusters, and up to a million D’vine snack bars. They stated to WYD organisers, “Sanitarium is pleased to be part of a positive youth event where youth are encouraged to celebrate and explore their faith”. Responding to concerned Adventists, the company clarified it was merely a "Provider" business to WYD, less than the "Supporter" or "Partner" categories.

We travelled to the city for the opening ceremony, streaming past the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge to the “Barangaroo” site east of Darling Harbour. Our group’s large yellow and white flag helped to navigate the crowd, but that didn’t stop Father Paul from stirring me, “I always knew you were a Vatican man” when I assisted holding it!

At the opening Mass, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went beyond the usual political wateriness in boldly affirming “Christianity”, asserting “You are a light in a world with much darkness.” Scripture was read in different languages, and after a message by Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, the Eucharist was held. (Catholics do not invite others to share with them; whereas Adventists, on the other hand, practice “open communion”. A central Catholic belief is that the bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus. Hence that institution believes it alone “dispenses” the physical presence of Jesus.)

The music comprised a surprisingly broad selection of Catholic and Protestant songs: traditional hymns, Taizé, contemporary worship such as (Pentecostal) Hillsong, and even a millennium-old Gregorian chant! Most of the lyrics were fine. Services had the normal reverence and formality of a Catholic service, but mixed with the youthful energy of the crowd, creating an excellent balance. One of my favourite parts of the service is the “Sign of Peace” when the congregation turn to one another, shake hands and say “Peace be with you” (or “Peace ☮” for some teenagers trying to be cool, or a kiss on the cheek for some Italians I noticed)!
Catechesis

The general program from Wednesday to Friday was catechesis (teaching) in the morning, followed by festivals and other events later in the day. The WYD theme was, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). We attended catechesis (held in 29 languages over 235 local sites) on the first two mornings, but not on the last due to concern over the content.

After lunch on Wednesday, we enjoyed the entertainment at Hyde Park in the city. In the evening we visited the memorial of “Blessed” Mary McKillop, who looks set to become Australia’s first saint. On the train trip home, our group “clown” employed his small megaphone to lead our carriage in singing, laughing, and in greeting unsuspecting commuters with sporting chants and even a modified supermarket jingle! A middle-aged businessman said, “You guys have brought so much happiness here. I’ve realised how dull Sydney has become”! One newspaper described it as an “onslaught of exuberance”.

On Thursday an energetic “animation team” kicked off catechesis with singing and actions. On both days the instruction was excellent, and the sometimes provocative Question & Answer sessions afterwards suggested the environment was tolerant. One priest prayed, and surprised me by briefly “speaking in tongues”. (Charismatic Catholics form only a minority). Our group helped present the Mass, where the casual shorts, tracksuit pants and jeans of the youth contrasted with the ceremonial robes of the priests! I publicly read a short prayer.

After lunch we caught the train, where Father Paul addressed our carriage with some of his concerns over the teaching. Megaphone in hand, he calmly and precisely critiqued the two presenters’ theology, “…I don’t know the mind of archbishops, but I do know the mind of Jesus, and the Church”! His concern about the first session was the discussion about the feminine side of God, and in the second, the discussion about women in ministry.

While I didn’t agree, I sat back and admired his strong logic, knowledge, and verbal skills. It made me think very seriously about why people look to a decisive leader. Father Paul is conservative; yet has a good sense of humour, enjoyed sport, waving the flag, as well as singing, clapping and dancing to the songs! He wore a black robe with a vest over the top, and signs his emails thus, “With blessings in the Lord, through His Holy Mother, Fr. Paul.” Our self-described “orthodox” or conservative group felt they could rely on him to protect the flock, and teach a “good Catholic message”.

One tag-along said it was the most devout group she’d ever been a part of. Our group admitted many Catholics are not committed to their faith, and that a strong youth group is rare. The core leaders were a bunch of friends in their twenties. They used to go drinking and clubbing every Saturday night, and while they still turned up bleary-eyed to Mass on Sunday, they weren’t really into God. They hadn’t known much about Catholic beliefs, until Fr. Paul taught them. Curiously, two sisters had a renewal of faith through a Baptist church! Another explained, “If we’d just wanted to take it easy, we would have gone with a different group. But we appreciate Fr. Paul”. They were friendly and had a great sense of humour.

Arriving at the harbour, we waited along with up to half a million others, for Pope Benedict XVI’s first public appearance at WYD. Eventually a flotilla of ships came into view, accompanied by small zippy black boats and helicopters flying overhead. Next we headed down to the roadway, and eventually he zoomed past in the Popemobile. I felt unenthusiastic about the man who upholds the traditional Catholic dogma that my denomination, being Protestant, can not properly be called a “church” but merely an “ecclesial commune”, because only Rome is the true Church! (Where have I heard that thinking before?) Others also found it less thrilling than expected. We ate dinner at a concert in Hyde Park. Some went to St. Mary’s Cathedral, to see the coffin housing an allegedly “incorruptible” (miraculously non-decaying) body.

On Friday, Father Paul led his own service at the school, stating it was to give us a rest and to save time. (He had also been warned about that day’s teacher, he told me earlier). He confronted us over how some people were treating one another. We split up into our small groups to discuss how we were really coping. Bravo! He is not afraid to give the “hard word” when needed.

We headed to Barangaroo for the “Stations of the Cross”, a Bible-based drama of Jesus’ last hours. To my surprise, a familiar face and voice appeared during stations 9 and 10 – “gospel singer” and Adventist Francine Bell! (Early this decade, she had been dining with friends when one, a priest and one of the main organisers for the drama, told her she’d be perfect for the upcoming event. He knew she was a Christian. Later, Francine prayed, “God, I won’t seek this opportunity. If you want me to do it, you’ll have to make it happen.” Sure enough, the offer came the very next day! She accepted it after much prayer.)

The Pope delivered a sermon in his thick German accent, but for the leader of one billion people, he is not a world class public speaker. However his content was solid, urging us to represent Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the world, through social action and so on. I had only occasional disagreement, such as when he asked the saints to “pray for us”. Afterwards we walked past the stage, where Hillsong musicians were now worshipping, to the “Vocations Expo” at Darling Harbour.

Pilgrims “high fived” the policemen we passed, who were smiling and laughing along with us. (After all, there was amazingly little trouble). Passing the chic revellers in the restaurants and bars, for once I did not feel envious of them, nor that I was missing out on something: we were singing and happy. It was a fantastic day, and marked the turning point of my experience. Just when I had felt frustrated with dogmatic Catholics and longed for the comforts of home, this day provided great conversations and lots of laughs. What had been an effort became enjoyable.
Finale

On Saturday we had a 5:30am start. Fr. Paul held Mass, and spoke about the self-imposed hardships some monks went through, and a man who suffered in jail for decades, saying we had it easy. We travelled to Randwick racecourse for the finale. Speaking of persecution, we missed the assembly of 2000 protesters reported by the media; in fact I encountered protesters only 4 times, mostly individuals handing out cards. They felt free to after the Federal government amended state on the Tuesday. Specifically, in the phrase warning of a fine for “conduct that causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants”, the imprecise word “annoyance” was removed.

We enjoyed performances and heard musicians such as (Protestant) Geoff Bullock. The Pope shared his intellectual journey in understanding the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel compelled to join in the ensuing cheering of “Benedetto!…” Bands played after the service, then stillness set in as 200,000 pilgrims bunked down for the night, filling the arena with brightly coloured sleeping bags and an occasional tent.

On Sunday morning, people slowly packed up. Australian Idol stars (and Pentecostal Christians) Guy Sebastian and Paulini performed. Perhaps 400,000 people attended the final Mass, some at nearby Centennial Park. It was a traditional “High Mass”, with much in Latin, and an interesting cultural experience to share in something so ancient. Having grown up in a mainstream denomination, I have been sceptical of tradition, but being slightly older now, I recognise some value in it as long as the soul is there. Like the tradition of “law”, it must be used in the right way (1Timothy 1:8).

To my surprise, Francine Bell appeared again! She sang the communion hymn, “Taste and See” written by an African-American, and Francine’s heritage played a part in her selection. So at the pinnacle of the service, on the pinnacle day of the week, an Adventist performed! Surrounded by an array of priests, bishops and the Pope, she later exclaimed, “Only God could put a Sevvie [Adventist] there!” For her, it was an opportunity to share the gospel.

Young people were affirmed through representative Confirmation candidates, and the Pope gave a sermon. The lengthy service concluded with the theme song, “Receive the Power” (International Version) and a fireworks display. The end!
Adventists are alright

“So, do you think you’ll convert?” asked one friend. “Will you convert?” I asked in response. The reply, “I was just kidding… But seriously though…!” Actually, converting was never an option. This experience has actually increased my appreciation for the Adventist Church, despite positive experiences and new friends.

In particular, I was surprised how much my group believed traditional Catholic dogma. While I remain sceptical of the past vendetta, we should not overcompensate from it with some sort of extreme postmodern “everyone’s pretty much the same”. Crucially, Protestants believe we are saved not by being good enough (albeit by God’s power), but by Jesus being good enough instead of us. (Record, August 23)

While Catholicism rejects both contraception and abortion outrightly, official Adventist statements are very balanced in comparison. Adventists view abortion as “one of the tragic dilemmas of human fallenness” which “should be performed only for the most serious reasons… The Church does not serve as conscience for individuals; however, it should provide moral guidance.” Amen!

For Catholics, under certain conditions “the Church’s shepherds” have “infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (Catechism, 235) Adventists, on the other hand, believe “God alone is infallible”. Amen! Catholics value church tradition, of which the Bible is only a part. If you disagree on the Bible, the answer is simple: ask the Church. Thus one may obtain a solid answer, yet that is no guarantee of its truth!

As we travelled home overnight I intermittedly chatted and dozed. Arriving in the morning, there was just enough time for a shower before work. After debriefing with a retired pastor, I slept for 16½ hours straight (sorry about that elders’ meeting), but could not stave off the cold/flu! Even so, one friend observed I was “buzzing” – no doubt with the warm glow of new friendships, and a spiritual blessing. As a committed Adventist Christian, I “stress the conviction that many Roman Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Colin MacLaurin is a youth worker at Wantirna Seventh-day Adventist Church in Melbourne, Australia.

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