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Sydney Catholic Schools’ director of religious education Anthony Cleary has written about what makes World Youth Day pilgrims tick.
It’s an interesting issue. After all, travelling from Down Under to a European World Youth Day is probably one of the most expensive and taxing pilgrimages to make in terms of distance to travel, time, cost and the general difficulties associated with being half a world away – literally – from the comforts of home. The fact that thousands still journey every three years from the Antipodes is pretty impressive.
There are, he finds, many reasons the young make all the sacrifices necessary to get there. And it is clear that WYD pilgrims are perfectly willing to make all the effort necessary, including spending months or years working in part-time jobs and organising fund-raising activities to help get them and their peers to the biggest religious gathering in the world.
Whatever the reasons they go there, there is still the issue of what it is that they will actually find when they arrive. What is it about the WYD experience that draws so many young people to gather in one place at one time for – of all things – a gathering whose entire meaning is expressed and defined in terms of religious faith?
After all, in both Australia and so many ‘developed’ nations of the world, these pilgrims come from societies whose opinion towards religious faith – and especially, it seems, Christianity – is rapidly hardening.
In fact, the hardening of opinion against Christianity, the new Christophobia, appears in some regards to be accelerating to the point that growing numbers of people are beginning to contemplate a possibility which once seemed purely hypothetical: that many religious activities and works once regarded as completely natural may arrive at a point in the not-too-distant future where they are basically illegal – unless those who operate them are prepared to renounce the most central tenets of their Christian faith.
Another issue is that most pilgrims from Australia are travelling from a country and a culture in which the Church seems to have become in recent decades, largely, morally and spiritually exhausted. For too many young Australian Catholics the average experience of growing up within the Australian Catholic ethos has been the least inspiring aspect of their lives.
Too often, the experience has been that most of those around them have regarded a personal and uncompromising choice for Christ as abnormality, a sign of an ‘unhealthy’ extremism. Thankfully, the signs of the beginning of an emergence from the long, dark and mediocre winter of Australian Catholicism over the past half century or so are increasingly apparent.
One thing the young do find at WYD which they do not – with rare exceptions – find in Australia is the sheer joy of discovering thousands or millions of others just like themselves for whom a deep and profound faith in Christ and his Church is not regarded as abnormality. In other words, at WYD they find faith is normal. They find what they do not find at home, the exuberance and joy in making the choice for Christ and his Cross.
They see on every side of them individuals who have also chosen Christ and want to continue their lifelong journey with him in and through his Church. Christianity, they discover, is really the ultimate adventure. It is at this point that we realise that it is precisely these young pilgrims departing our shores who are the ones we hope – and pray – will return to become the unafraid witnesses of the new evangelisation to our society and our Church, those who will become – and help us to be – the salt of the earth.
Visit xt3.com to view the live stream of the main events of WYD 2016 from 27-31 July, or visit the live chat portal to join the global conversation.