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Anthony Cleary: World Youth Day must be seen to be believed

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Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field in Panama City on 27 January, 2019. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

It was not until I first experienced a World Youth Day that I truly appreciated the nature and magnitude of the international gathering.

Prior to travelling to Cologne in 2005 I had only known of the event vicariously, listening to the animated reflections of returning pilgrims.

Upon arriving in Germany, I soon realised that World Youth Day was an event like no other.

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While the joyful camaraderie of the pilgrims reminded me of the Sydney Olympics, there was a particular heightened emotional energy, which was exhilarating. I think the crowds were key to this.

My travelling companion was then-Fr Peter Comensoli, now Archbishop of Melbourne.

We were caught in “serious” crowd crushes, none more so than at the papal arrival. While Olympic athletes have a celebrity status, this was easily eclipsed by the popularity of the German-born pope.

Some may react sceptically to this claim, but it is true. The buzz around the pope was electric, with pilgrims gathering and waiting for hours in the hope of being able to see or have contact with him.

I now know that Cologne was typical of World Youth Days, including Sydney 2008. It combined and synergised religious, cultural and social elements, and its atmosphere was both one of festivity and reverence.

I well remember my pilgrimage to Cologne’s gothic cathedral, which houses various historical and artistic treasures, including the reliquary of the Magi.

And then, a short distance away I saw a Catholic heavy metal band, mosh pit and all.

These diverse elements surprised me, but in hindsight they seemed to work.

They seem to work for other pilgrims too and this may account for in part why some people become WYD “tragics.”

Many do not distinguish between the religious and the psycho-social dynamics of the event but speak of the various elements interchangeably, and see each of them contributing to the overall experience.

I attended Cologne for work purposes. The experience exceeded my expectations and strengthened my belief in the value of the event.

World Youth Day pilgrims from Peru cheer as Pope Francis departs a welcoming ceremony and gathering with young people at Santa Maria la Antigua Field in Panama Cityon 24 January. Photo: Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Unfortunately. I will not be able to attend the upcoming World Youth Day in Lisbon. Despite this, I have followed closely the preparations of those who will attend.

Following on from my own doctoral research some years ago, I invited pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Sydney to complete a pre-WYD survey. Over 450 responded!

The pilgrims have registered for Lisbon for a range of religious, spiritual, social and personal reasons. Many have been influenced in their decision by different groups of people, while others are influenced by their own past experiences of World Youth Day itself.

And of course, some are going for the very first time, and they will have particular hopes.

The contrasting dispositions of adult and school aged pilgrims were borne out in what they considered the anticipated benefits of attending World Youth Day.

Students highlighted the appeal of meeting new people from around the world, making new friends, visiting places only ever read or heard about, bonding with fellow pilgrims and deepening their relationship with God.

Adult pilgrims also hoped to deepen their relationship with God. They also saw as important: having moments of personal and spiritual reflection; experiencing the sacred in the places visited while on pilgrimage and feeling a part of the wider Church.

From the survey, it was very clear that those making the journey for the first time were the most excited.

One young pilgrim wrote, “World Youth Day, I can’t wait. I was too young to remember Sydney, but people still talk about it. And it’s not just World Youth Day, it’s the pilgrimage as well.”

Another wrote, “I need this right now. I am struggling with my faith, and I need to make things right.”

For many, the hope is that World Youth Day is not just a peak religious experience but a peak life experience. I for one found that to be the case.

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