JOHN HERRON has been a very public Catholic all his life, as a senator for 11 years, as a Howard government Aboriginal affairs minister, and as the ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See.
There, he met two popes - John Paul II and Benedict XVI - and his half-hour meeting with the latter left him "enthralled with his urbaneness".
Now the chairman of the National Council on Drugs, he agreed to be a World Youth Day ambassador, thinking the papal visit would help the church and young Catholics to be publicly proud of their faith.
"We're a secular society in Australia, we're very materialistic, and I think we've lost something in all of that," he says. It's time for some spirituality, although he acknowledges he once questioned his faith, but found confidence from a joke.
A man fell over a cliff, but caught the edge and called for help. "Is anyone up there? God, can you help me?" A deep voice said: "Let go." The man said: "Let go? I can't let go, I'll fall." The voice said: "Let go." And the man called out: "Is there anybody else up there?"
"The point of the story is that I let go," Herron says. "I stopped questioning and that's what I believe faith is, letting go.
"Life became very simple because then you just follow the rules, rather than making your own rules, which most people do in a secular society."
On the World Youth Day website, he says it is hard for young Catholics to publicly declare their faith. Asked why, he says: "I don't think it is hard. I've declared my faith all my life."
He guesses some fear mockery or ostracism. "Another importance of World Youth Day is to demonstrate to Catholic youth in Australia there's nothing to be ashamed about by being a public Catholic. They should be more assertive, because you stand for something," he says.
"Don't be ashamed of anything, about your religion or your birth or your age or who you are. We all should be like that. Profess your religion, but you don't have to be militant about it."
He advised the Pope there were five types of Catholics in Australia. There were relapsing Catholics, who returned to the faith when stressed; and nominal Catholics, the tick-the-census-box types. There were anti-Catholic Catholics, baptised but who hate Catholicism ("There are a lot of them around," the Pope told Herron), and smorgasbord Catholics, who take bits they like and leave those they don't (the Pope called them "cafe Catholics").
And then, Herron told the Pope, there are practising Catholics. "Like you and me."