. . . the 7-kilometre pilgrimage walk to the overnight vigil site at Randwick Racecourse. The walk took us through North Sydney, across the Harbour Bridge by the Opera House, down a highway ramp in the Central Business District, through Darling Harbour, Chinatown, and Surry Hills, all the way out to the racecourse.
A joyful and enthusiastic spirit permeated the crowd. Even though we'd had a long week of activities with lots of walking, early mornings and late nights, the excitement of World Youth Day kept everyone going. It is such a thrill to celebrate our Christian faith together, to see that our Church is very much alive, vibrant with young enthusiasm. Groups waved their flags and sang songs as they had all week. One of the cheers ("an oldie but a goodie") goes: "We love Jesus, yes we do! We love Jesus, how about you?!". And as basic as the cheer is, it describes the energy of World Youth Day pilgrims. Everyone seems to be saying, "You love the Lord Jesus Christ? You love His Church? So do I!". And that's worth celebrating.
When we arrived at the vigil site a few hours later, we found our assigned camp site, set up our tarps, and enjoyed our lunch picnics. Then we spent the afternoon enjoying music from the stage (including Matt Maher Band and other renowned Catholic groups), meeting fellow pilgrims from around the world, playing cards, and of course praying. Some of our camp neighbors from the Solomon Islands were braiding other groups' hair. Between musical acts, the large screens around the field would feature witnesses from Australian students about their Catholic faith. They spoke about virtue, about the saints, and about other religious aspects of their lives, preparing us for the night of prayer that was to come. It was a fun, relaxed afternoon permeated with a sense of anticipation.
Awhile after the sun went down, Pope Benedict arrived and the prayer vigil began. Young people from different continents presented their personal witnesses on each of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, then Pope Benedict would offer a prayer and ask one of the World Youth Day patrons to pray for us and that particular gift in our lives. It was so beautiful. After that, we had a time of Adoration. What a rare and special occasion, to bow before the Lord of the Universe, there in the Eucharist, with the Successor to Peter leading the prayer!
I was really struck by the great reverence of the large crowd. Everyone, hundreds of thousands of us, knelt in prayer. At some times, in between prayer and song, there was absolute silence, with just sound of the light wind blowing across the field. Despite all the rowdiness before and after the vigil, the young faithful of the world know when and how to pray.
After the prayer vigil, a friend and I went in search of one of our classmates with another group in a different section. We never actually found her, but we had a great time seeing all the different parts of the campsite. It was such a festive atmosphere. We ended up running into an old Australian friend of mine and that in itself increased my trust in God's providence on that prayerful evening. We grabbed some hot cocoa and then went back to our site to settle into our warm sleeping bags. (Remember, it's the peak of winter in the Southern Hemisphere!) I don't think many of us slept too well that night, but it was okay because we were so glad to be there.
In the misty morning, seminarians led us all in chanting Morning Prayer. A little while later, Pope Benedict flew around the field in a helicopter, blessing us all, and soon after he arrived at the field in the Popemobile.
Mass, of course, was amazing. To receive the Body of Jesus Christ, consecrated by His vicar on Earth is an amazing blessing. His words too, touched our hearts, and I pray also that they moved the hearts of everyone who heard them. You can read his homily here.
I, personally, feel moved to a deeper conversion, completely letting the Lord take over my life. The Holy Father spoke of vocation, and the radical yes to the Holy Spirit in our lives. I want that!
The joyful Christian spirit continued throughout the day. Even though some of the logistics of World Youth Day will be chaotic and uncomfortable, no matter how well-planned, people were continuously patient and generous with each other. I find this to be a good indication that the encouragement and empowerment found at World Youth Day will continue in the lives of pilgrims as they return home.
On our way back last night we picked up some newspapers. Surprisingly, the reports were very positive and detailed regarding World Youth Day. Reporters said the consistent joy of the pilgrims had lightened up the frequent cynicism and faithless-ness of the city. Protesters against the Church and World Youth Day (I saw none) apparently found no success and were somewhat humiliated. One woman was quoted saying that every Catholic should go to at least one World Youth Day. And I agree. The edifying messages, the encouragement of fellow Catholics, and the challenge of the pilgrimage experience all bring a person into a deeper relationship with Christ.I wish the whole Church could be there, but indeed, I think the vigor of youth may be necessary for the rigorous aspects of pilgrimage. Yet, I noticed many enthusiastic and determined people of all ages at World Youth Day. I am so glad that through the word of mouth, magnified by modern technology, and through union in prayer, the whole world can indeed participate in this day and its message of hope.
May Jesus Christ be praised now and forever.