I’d like to share with you what was for me, unexpectedly, an amazing and wonderful experience at World Youth Day in Sydney in July. An experience that I was privileged to share with seven remarkable young people from our parish; each one of them an extraordinary blessing in my life.
When the Genesis group originally asked me towards the end of last year to join them at WYD as their spiritual leader, I happily agreed without giving it much thought. However, as this year progressed, a trip to Sydney in July started looking more and more like a nightmare – perhaps even impossible. I submitted my application for an Australian visa somewhat reluctantly and with little supporting documentation. The following day I was asked by the visa office for proof of accommodation in Sydney and proof that I had sufficient funds to cover my costs. I replied that I was a pilgrim and travelled in faith. 24 hours later my passport was returned to me – with a visa for unrestricted entry to Australia valid for 12 months. My travel agent was stunned (as I was) and I stopped nagging the Holy Spirit for guidance or affirmation.
I arrived in Sydney a day later than our group and we came together for the first time in Sydney at St Mary’s cathedral for Sunday night Mass in the week preceding the beginning of WYD. The cathedral was packed with pilgrims that evening and we were happy to be there and happy to be together. I sensed then already that we were in for a week overflowing with God’s grace.
The following day we went back to the cathedral after lunch and sat outside on the lawn in the park; sharing, reflecting and praying before spending some quiet time alone with the Blessed Sacrament in the crypt. These times of sharing and prayer together became precious milestones on our pilgrimage through the week.
WYD started officially on the Tuesday with the opening Mass in the late afternoon in an area called Barangaroo that forms part of the harbour, close to the Sydney opera house. Walking to Barangaroo that afternoon was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before; thousands upon thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder waving national flags and pilgrim banners; singing, laughing, hugging, excited and filled with joy. It was a little like the large crowds one sees at big sporting events – the difference here being that though we were from very many different countries, we all supported the same team; catholic in every sense of the word.
The words of welcome from the PM of Australia, Kevin Rudd were not those one is accustomed to hearing from a politician.
“You are here for this great celebration of life, this great celebration of faith and this great celebration of hope. And for this you are so much the light of the world at a time when the world has so much darkness. Too often in the history of the world when young people travel in great numbers to other parts of the world, they do so in the cause of war. But you here today are here as pilgrims of peace. Some say only that which they see wrong in Christianity and in the church, I say let us speak also about what is right in Christianity and the church. And I say this, that Christianity has been an overwhelming force for good in the world.”
Sydney underwent an amazing transformation of spirit in the week we were there. In the days leading up to the start of WYD the press and other media and even people who approached us in the street were largely critical and sceptical of the whole event and resented the disruption and inconvenience that it was going to cause them. The media also didn’t miss an opportunity to regurgitate past scandals involving the clergy. By the Wednesday already however the press, TV and radio were talking well about WYD – and by the weekend, they were proclaiming their city greatly blessed. This wasn’t because the Pope was in town. This was the effect that the thousands of young people had on the city – generously sharing their joy, love, zeal and happiness on the trains, the buses, in the shops, the restaurants and on the streets. The gifts of the Holy Spirit evident, tangible and contagious.
The opening Mass was awesome and we came away feeling deeply enriched and blessed. We had had a profound experience of God’s kingdom; the ruling of God in our hearts. Pope Benedict says in his encyclical ‘Spe Salvi’: “His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us”. Experiencing that love makes it impossible not to love.
In his homily, Cardinal Pell, the archbishop of Sydney urged us to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit.
“The call of the one true God remains mysterious” he said “especially today when many good people find it hard to believe. Our task is to be open to the power of the Spirit, to allow the God of surprises to act through us. Whatever our situation we must pray for an openness of heart, for a willingness to take the next step, even if we are fearful of venturing too much further. If we take God’s hand, He will do the rest. Trust is the key.”
Our routine for the rest of the week was catechesis in the morning in a parish with a visiting bishop followed by Mass and lunch and then a gathering of pilgrims in the afternoons for large events like the arrival of the Holy Father on Thursday and a live enactment of the Stations of the Cross on the Friday afternoon. The Stations started at St Mary’s cathedral and moved through the city finishing with the crucifixion outside the Sydney Opera House with the setting winter sun as a backdrop. Tens of thousands of pilgrims followed the Stations on huge screens located in parks and public areas in different parts of the city and millions throughout Australia watched the live broadcast on television.
The sacrament of reconciliation was available throughout each day and often well into the night in numerous locations in the city parks, parishes and even the convention centre.
The arrival of Pope Benedict on the Thursday afternoon was another joy-filled celebration for the 150,000 pilgrims gathered at Barangaroo.
In his opening address to the pilgrims, Pope Benedict spoke of the great difficulties that the youth have in making moral choices in a confused world; in finding the goodness, truth and beauty in a world obsessed with consumerism and subjective experience. He also addressed the issue of violence and sexual degradation promoted through television and the internet. He said: “I ask myself, could anyone standing face to face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation “explain” that these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, are considered merely “entertainment”?
He concluded: “Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! It is to bear witness to this reality that you were created. Let this be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!”
After the Holy Father had spoken to us he was taken through the city. It was estimated that over 500,000 people turned out to welcome him to Sydney that day.
On the Friday night we went different ways. Agnes and Nicole had tickets for a WYD performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Opera house, Greg and Claudine had gone down with a bug and Dr Agnes had confined them to bed, Caroline and Shaun opted to escape the icy wind and have an early night and Tim and I went to an outdoor concert of contemporary gospel music. The concert was free and open to everyone – not just pilgrims – and there were large numbers of people there watching the concert on huge video screens. As the concert was drawing to a close at about nine thirty, the altar on the stage was set up for Benediction. Well when the Blessed Sacrament was carried-in in solemn procession, the pilgrims dropped to their knees spontaneously and many of those who were there only for the music did the same. We prayed and sang together gently; conscious of the vivid presence of the Holy Spirit. A most memorable evening.
On the Saturday morning, starting from 5.30am about 180,000 pilgrims gathered at North Sydney Station for the pilgrimage walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and through the city to Randwick Racecourse where we spent the rest of that day and the night under the stars in preparation for the WYD Mass with Pope Benedict on Sunday morning. Our group set off at about 9.30 that morning and the 9km walk took us just over three hours; stopping along the way to pray on the bridge and in the streets of the city. I think it’s astonishing that all traffic in and out of Sydney that day was diverted and the city was given over completely to the WYD pilgrims.
That evening the racecourse was transformed into an open-air, candle-lit cathedral under the Southern Cross.
The full front page in the Sydney Sunday newspaper the next day featured an aerial photograph of the pilgrims covering the racecourse under the headline “Holy Night.”
The evening vigil with Pope Benedict started at seven and finished at about nine with Benediction. His message to the youth that night was especially beautiful.
He used a quotation from St Augustine to talk about the gift of God’s love in the Holy Spirit.
He said: “The Holy Spirit makes us remain in God and God in us; yet it is love that effects this. The Spirit therefore is God as love!” God shares himself as love in the Holy Spirit. Love is the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit!
“Dear young people, we have seen that it is the Holy Spirit who brings about this wonderful communion of believers in Jesus Christ. He is even now working through you. Let unifying love be your measure; abiding love your challenge; self-giving love your mission!
“I echo to you the words spoken by Blessed Mary MacKillop when she was just twenty six years old: “Believe in the whisperings of God to your heart!”. Believe in him! Believe in the power of the Spirit of Love!”
Tents were positioned all around the perimeter of the racecourse and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Confession continued throughout the night.
As the sun rose that chilly Sunday morn we said Morning Prayer together and then prepared for the arrival of the Holy Father and the WYD Mass. People streamed into the arena by their thousands and by 9am close on 500,000 people were gathered for the final Mass.
In his homily, Pope Benedict highlighted the importance for hope to be revived, and especially for the youth to be Christ’s witnesses.
“What will you leave to the next generation?” he asked. “How are you using the gifts you have been given, the ‘power’ which the Holy Spirit is even now prepared to release within you? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?”
The Holy Father’s final words addressed to the pilgrims are equally addressed to each of us here at this moment:
“Do not be afraid to say “yes” to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others!”
“In Sydney we have had a vivid experience of the Spirit’s presence and power in the life of the Church. We have seen the Church for what she truly is: the Body of Christ, a living community of love, embracing people of every race, nation and tongue, in the unity born of our faith in the Risen Lord.”
I believe we each have come away from WYD deeply enriched and forever changed.