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Visitors to Sydney for World Youth Day came from far and wide in many guises, but not many arrived in a closed zinc-lined coffin.

The remains of Pier Giorgio Frassati, one of 10 saintly patrons for World Youth Day, were flown in from Turin, Italy and hosted at St Benedict’s Church at Notre Dame University Broadway.

Pier Giorgio’s feast day was celebrated on July 4, the anniversary of his death over 80 years ago, at St Benedict’s by Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, and Bishop Anthony Fisher, Co-ordinator of WYD, with a special mass.

A week later, the Italian blessed was moved to St Mary’s Cathedral, where he stayed for the remainder of World Youth Day celebrations. Organisers encouraged pilgrims and members of the public to visit Pier Giorgio and his body was a “focal piece” of the pilgrimage to the Cathedral until July 22, according to an official statement.

Pier Giorgio Frassati, described in the statement as “charismatic” and “revered for his social activism, sporty nature, sense of humour and generous spirit”, was 24 when he died from polio. Born in 1901 into a wealthy family that owned the still running La Stampa newspaper, he was known for his profound spiritual life from an early age, shown in many works of charity.

His entry on the WYD08 website as a patron of the event reads:  “A layman who lived only to 24 years of age, his love for sports, friends and the poor make him an ideal model to propose to Australians. His embrace of social justice as a university student makes him a hero to young pilgrims.”

Pope John Paul II called Pier Giorgio Frassati a “man of the beatitudes” at his beatification ceremony, a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person’s accession to Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name, in 1990.

Since then, Pier Giorgio had been safely ensconced in his zinc-lined coffin at the Cathedral of Turin in Italy. But the touring and display of the remains of long-deceased saints and blesseds as part of World Youth Day represents a revival of one of the Catholic Church’s older traditions.

While Catholic spokespersons have revelled in the presence of these relics, others raised concerns the emphasis on older and seemingly odd traditions ran the risk of repelling younger Catholics from the Church.

Father Mark Podesta, a 31 year-old Catholic priest and WYD spokesperson, said Pier Giorgio Frassati was a “role model for young people because he was an ordinary fellow who achieved extraordinary things. He proves that saints aren’t necessarily people from ancient times. They can be people from living memory.”

Father Podesta said while it was fine to describe the practice of visiting and praying to the relics of saints and blesseds as “mystical”, to call it “old-fashioned” was not. “Young people are happy to use externals and I include myself in that, to help lift our minds and hearts,” he said. “Even outside Christianity, for instance in New Age beliefs, the use of externals such as incense and chants are very acceptable,” he explained.

Bernie Quinn, 26, a spokesperson for the Opus Dei organisation, agreed that saints can be relevant and inspiring to young people. She told ABC radio it was “very exciting” to have had the relics of Pier Giorgio in town. “I think they’re relevant because he is a young person who died when he was 24 and I think saints are an inspiration for us to help love Jesus more,” she said. “So I think no matter when in the Church’s history, they’ll always be relevant for people.”

But the worshipping of relics has surprised some. Rod Blackhurst, a lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at La Trobe University said: “The cult of relics and so forth is very specifically Catholic, and many people thought that the Second Vatican Council had effectively marginalised or done away with a lot of that, but there seems to be a revival of those things.”

Mr Blackhurst said he was unsure why such practices would be making a come back, but it was certainly the case that “contemporary religion seems to be very polarised between liberal elements and a return to more conservative and traditional elements.

“And so we are seeing a return to those more traditional forms of worship, what you would effectively call medieval forms of worship, side by side with more liberal and modernising elements.”

The Second Vatican Council was an attempt to modernise the Catholic Church, moving away from some of the biblical literalism of the past and placing more of an emphasis on ideas of social justice. Dr Paul Collins, a former Catholic priest and author of Believers: Does Australian Catholicism have a Future?, says this can help explain why today’s young Catholics may not be aware of some of the older traditions that existed before the 1960s.

As for the saintly relics themselves, Dr Collins said: “Well, [young Catholics] certainly haven’t seen them I’d say, especially if they went to Catholic schools where the emphases would be quite different.” Dr Collins thinks that to some extent the travelling relics reflect “more the kind of religiosity of the organisers of World Youth Day, rather than the mainstream Catholic Church.”

“I think for Australian Catholics, and I think for Australians generally, these are kind of odd things that are different, that people find a little hard to fit into any context and don’t make much sense to them,” he said.

But Mr Blackhurst counters with the suggestion that the resurgence of the worship of relics and an interest in more spiritual ceremonies generally may be what some Christians feel they need. “The liberal agenda of the Second Vatican Council was very successful at taking apart and exposing the limitations of that old 1950s Catholicism that people from that generation would know. But they weren’t particularly good at replacing it with things,” he said. He points to a “yearning amongst young people to go back and experience those things which they felt had been lost and that perhaps were valuable.”

Father Podesta agrees that praying to saints restores some of the more mystical, devotional aspects of Catholicism alongside its post-Vatican II social justice focus. “We need to attach ourselves to something. Like in work, we’re attached to a business, part of something because we’re not comfortable otherwise. It’s the same thing with prayer, where it’s easy to be distracted. It’s not worshipping the body of saints or worshipping saints as Gods, with praying to saints accused wrongly of idolatry. Instead it’s saying ‘Here I have a human being I can relate and feel close to’ and I can pray to him or her in Heaven as a source of inspiration, an extra voice and an advocate,” he said.

Linda Daniele

*First published in South Sydney Herald, August 2008