When I went to World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 I was five months pregnant. I left my husband and 18 month old daughter at the Sydney airport check-in.
I couldn’t believe I was really going. I’d never been separated from her for a night before, him since we were married. Here I was going for 10 nights, and so far away.
She toddled around and under the queue barriers and seemed to enjoy the adventure of getting up early and driving with mum and dad to this strange, brightly lit place with a growing crowd of excited young people.
I was going on behalf The Catholic Weekly, but also for myself. This would be my first World Youth Day, and also the first one of a new pope, Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of the founder of the World Youth Days, Blessed Pope John Paul II.
I knew that this could be my last WYD as well. Australia had put in a very good bid to host the one which would follow in 2008, but we wouldn’t know the outcome of that bid until the pope’s announcement at the conclusion of the final Mass in about a week’s time.
I had heard about the rock-concert style atmosphere at the papal appearances at the previous World Youth Days, the exuberant crowds of young people from around the world descending on host cities, and the moving experiences people had reported of feeling a part of a grand and universal Church.
I wasn’t interested much in any of that. I cringed to think of people fawning in adulation over a spiritual leader, I dislike crowds, and thanks to the writings of Blessed Pope John Paul II I already felt a sense of awe in belonging to the Church universal, the Body of Christ, and the communion of saints.
Mainly I wanted to go and see what the recently elected pope had to say to the young people of the world, the future Church, the Church my children would become a part of in its living tradition.
The idea of travelling overseas with friends and getting a complete and relatively guilt-free break from my daily routine of work, mothering, and wife-ing, appealed too of course.
But my WYD experience completely surprised me.
For one thing I didn’t expect the journey to Leverkusen for the Days of the Diocese pre-WYD program to take so much out of me. I was too exhausted to go to the initial group meeting, my host family was called to come and pick me up early.
Then in Cologne itself I fell sick with a cold and my exhaustion deepened.
The first night there I lay in my sleeping bag on a blue foam mat on a school classroom floor, a tissue stuck in my nostril to stop it dripping, and cried thinking of my little family half a world away.
I dragged myself around the city, stupidly trying to do the reporter thing on my own instead of teaming up with someone, missed trains, lost friends, and struggled to file stories back home from the WYD media centre which was a 30 minute trip from where I was staying.
That was all very surprising.
But so was all the everlasting loveliness.
Was there adulation of the pope? Pfft! I was just as excited as everyone else packed in along the grassy banks of the Rhine River on a gorgeously sunny day as Pope Benedict arrived into the city and gave his opening address.
I saw how people smiled and waved at him, called out to him, how they fell silent to listen intently to his words. I did the same. This was not a crowd whipped into a frenzy, this was not an idolatrous crowd. This was a flock drawing near its gentle shepherd.
It sounds silly to say, but it’s true – love was in the air that day.
Love of the people for this new pope, who was so obviously different to the last one. We could see that Pope Benedict may not play and dance with the pilgrims, as Pope John Paul II did, but they knew that they had a man who, like his great predecessor, would be a father to them, a teacher, and wise friend.
And Pope Benedict loved the young people, and not only those who came out to meet him. For as the true shepherd in the image of Christ, his concern was also very much for the young people outside of the flock.
He said this first:
“With great joy I welcome you, dear young people. You have come here from near and far, walking the streets of the world and the pathways of life. My particular greeting goes to those who, like the Magi, have come from the East. You are the representatives of so many of our brothers and sisters who are waiting, without realising it, for the star to rise in their skies and lead them to Christ, Light of the Nations, in whom they will find the fullest response to their hearts’ deepest desires.
“I also greet with affection those among you who have not been baptised, and those of you who do not yet know Christ or have not yet found a home in his Church.”
Isn’t that lovely?
The other thing I was worried about? Annoying crowds? Double pfft! The throngs which filled the city streets during the four days and nights were completely joy-filled, friendly, vibrant. Being among them lifted the spirit, even while legs and feet ached.
Together we were an illustration of Christ’s words, “I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full”.
Also charming were the fellow pilgrims we spoke to and befriended on trains and buses and in queues.
Other highlights were an impromptu restaurant dinner in Cologne with friends; the single beer I enjoyed in Frankfurt en route home.
A simple, beautiful Mass with Bishop Anthony Fisher in a chapel or church I can’t recall the name of near Cologne Cathedral. And the cathedral itself, a revelation itself every time I saw it in its solemn immensity.
Surprising was the craziness and profoundness of the rain-blessed sleepout between the vigil and final Mass at Marienfeld, a former lignite mine outside the city.
How moving I found the vigil Mass to be, especially.
Jesus was with us, truly. And what more could we want in life? I knew then as I had felt before and have again since, that I am truly happy.
For as the pope had also told the pilgrims, “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist. Only he gives the fullness of life to humanity! With Mary, say your own ‘yes’ to God, for he wishes to give himself to you.”
Yes. That’s me. Saying yes to God, yes to this baby. Full of peace deep down. Even though, you know, life is quite difficult at times. Just like a pilgrimage.
That’s one reason why we do pilgrimages; they are a microcosm of our life and reflect it, and we reflect on them later to help us through life.
After the final Mass we walked for hours praying the rosary together, asking Our Lady to help us find buses back to showers, clean clothes and food. She came through, as always.
How I hope to be like her, I thought. Full of grace, full of light and love, one day.
The next World Youth Day would be Australia’s, Pope Benedict had announced.
We had our Aussie WYD 2008 t-shirts on already for the TV cameras – we’d been tipped off.
So in spite of some initial reservations and setbacks, it was a beautiful week overall and I was confirmed in my confidence that despite the problems from within and outside the Church, it is ultimately in good hands. God’s hands.
As I sat in the coach which took us from Frankfurt airport to a hostel during the first leg of my trip back home, I thought I felt the baby move for the first time.
Really? I waited. Definitely, there it was again. A little ripple of movement.
Hello little one. Yes it’s me, your mama.
For a few moments, I was full.