SYDNEY, Jul 24, 2008 7:01 PM - Was World Youth Day a spectacular showcase for Sydney, or a stunning public display for the Catholic Church?

Excited pilgrims, jubilant politicians and unenthusiastic academics have different opinions on the event's significance, but everyone agrees on one thing - the week-long festival was a success for Sydney.

Sydney had reclaimed its mojo, the city's Chamber of Commerce said, after slipping into the doldrums since the 2000 Olympics.

"After a post-Olympic blues, this is the week that Sydney reclaimed its title as the world's number one host city," chamber executive director Patricia Forsythe said.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma was equally thrilled.

"The city put on its trademark magic," he said.

"The best city in the world, the best city in the world. And we saw it on display all week."

Money could not buy the positive publicity that World Youth Day had generated for Sydney, Iemma said.

Pilgrims from 170 nations, many of whom had saved for two years or more to pay for their trips, thought their money well spent.

Francesca Avi, 29, one of more than 110,000 registered international pilgrims, said Sydney was her third World Youth Day.

"I've been to Paris (1997) and Rome (2000) and now here," Avi said. "This is the best so far."

And the man at the centre of the whole event, Pope Benedict XVI, was clearly moved by the beauty of Sydney, which he saw at its best on a sparkling winter's day as his boat-a-cade cruised the harbour.

"Here in Australia, this `great south land of the Holy Spirit', all of us have had an unforgettable experience of the spirit's presence and power in the beauty of nature," he told the enormous congregation of worshippers at Randwick Racecourse for the final mass of the event.

Even the racing industry, miffed at the co-opting of the racecourse for the festival and worried about possible damage to its precious track, was happy in the aftermath.

"The turf track seems to be have held up well," a spokesman for the Australian Jockey Club said as organisers cleaned up after the mass attended by up to 400,000 people.

So what's not to like?

Plenty, it seems, if you already think Christians have too much influence in Australia.

Professor John Stratton, head of cultural studies at Curtin University in Perth, said the event delivered a blow to religious diversity and showed governmental favouritism for Christianity.

"It would be nice if we could say that there could be a World Youth Day for Islam in Australia," Dr Stratton said.

"But I have a very strong suspicion if that were to happen there would be an outcry."

Dr Stratton said he was concerned World Youth Day represented the continuation of a shift away from secularism, which is central

to the function of a modern state, a process he said began under the former Howard government.

"The way I look at it is it's about people's perceptions," he said.

"Holding the Catholic World Youth Day in Australia, with the Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd) supporting it in the way that he did.. . what that does is reinforce the idea that Australia is a Christian society.

"Non-Christian religions then get seen as being, first of all, marginalised and, secondly, a threat to the nature of Australian society.

"There is less of a sense of Australia as a secular society accepting groups with diverse belief."

He's not alone.

Stephen Juan, lecturer at the University of Sydney's faculty of education and social work, has also questioned Sydney's staging of World Youth Day.

"The event has been extraordinary for a number of reasons," Dr Juan, a prominent anthropologist, said.

"One could not imagine the same favouritism being given to an Islamic group of this kind."

That criticism seems a little harsh in view of the Catholic Church's efforts to reach out to other faiths during World Youth Day.

Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, found time on one of the busiest days in the World Youth Day schedule to meet leaders from the Jewish, Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist communities.

"Together, as fellow believers, we must demonstrate that true faith in God is a cause for unity and comity, not division and hatred," Pell told the leaders.

Favourable treatment for the Catholic Church may reflect the fact Iemma and many of his ministers are Catholics, but it also reflects the fact Catholicism is the most popular religion in Australia.

The 2006 national census showed five million people, just over 25% of the population, identified themselves as Catholics.

Only 340,000 said they were Muslims.

In the months before World Youth Day, the NSW Greens criticised its cost, saying the Catholic Church would be the beneficiary, so it should pay the bills.

The Chamber of Commerce countered that the event would bring a net economic benefit of $231 million, a suspiciously exact figure it was sticking to as the event ended.

The NSW government was more conservative, estimating a gain of about $150 million.

The exact financial benefit will probably never be calculated, and was certainly not spread evenly.

With mostly budget-conscious young pilgrims crowding the streets, and locals encouraged to stay away from the city, sellers of cheap trinkets had a very good week, but up-market boutiques and luxury hotels suffered a drop in business.

The Greens have asked the NSW auditor-general to assess the cost to taxpayers of World Youth Day, which the government has estimated at $86 million - on top of $41 million jointly provided to the Australian Jockey Club and the racing industry by the state and federal governments.

Whether the financial benefits outweigh the costs can, in theory, be calculated, although the matter will no doubt be argued for months.

But no one can put a price on the happiness the event generated for hundreds of thousands of visitors, or the pride of Sydneysiders in sharing their city with them.

And what of today's public thank-you from the premier, in prominent newspaper advertisements?

"Heartfelt thanks.. . to the people of Sydney for showing such patience and understanding. Due to your talent and goodwill, Sydney remains the undisputed major event capital of the world," it says.

Priceless - and it's not even an election year.