There’s a photo I have of a group of friends that was taken at the beginning of 2009. A bunch of fresh-faced teens and 20-somethings from different parts of Sydney, we had met because we had all been involved in some way with a week-long youth festival in Sydney called World Youth Day.
We didn’t know each other before we signed up for WYD, but by the time we were done, we were practically family.
I love this photo, and others taken around that time, not only because they feature good friends of mine, but it is nice to think about how our lives have changed since then.
We didn’t know it at the time, but in these photos of friends who met at WYD, there were future priests and religious, future married couples now raising kids, future Catholic school teachers and catechists, writers and speakers, and countless good and faithful lay people who serve the Church in so many ways.
Over the years that have passed, this group of WYD friends have shared in each other’s joys and sorrows, prayed with and for each other, and walked beside each other as we try to live the Christian life.
I can say without a doubt that had it not have been for the friends I met during WYD, I would not be where I am today.
This week, many of us will head back to another Catholic youth festival in Sydney, the biggest the city has seen since WYD. This time, we will not be pilgrims but chaplains, youth leaders, presenters, staff and volunteers.
Our hope will not be to receive, but rather to do our bit to try and ensure that these students and young adults – most of whom were too young to attend or get very much out of WYD – will have an experience that will help set the course of their life in a direction that will ensure they remain close to Christ and His Church.
While all generations face their particular challenges when it comes to faith, I can see that this present generation of young Catholics faces challenges that didn’t exist even as recently as WYD 2008, when I was in their shoes.
The ubiquitous smartphone means that each of them literally holds unlimited distractions within the palm of their hand. Between Google, Netflix and Paypass, the speed and ease at which this generation is able to obtain whatever they want renders the old adage that ‘good things come to those who wait’ near redundant.
Add to this the cultural challenges that face Catholics today in a particular way. In the time since WYD08, “no religion” has become the country’s most popular religious belief. The Church has been through a Royal Commission into crimes committed by those in the Church against children, and has been publicly shamed in the process.
We have seen some Australian states introduce the most liberal abortion laws in the world, gender ideology creep into schools and we are about to have same-sex marriage and (in Victoria) euthanasia. In the face of all of this, the dominant culture tells young Catholics that their church is out of step with modern society and best left to the pages of history.
These challenges are why an event like this week’s Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) is so important. For most of the attendees, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Youth festivals like ACYF and WYD are not so-called “life-changing” experiences in and of themselves (we all know that if our life is going to change in any meaningful and long-lasting way, then it takes more than a few days!). But what they are is a great disruptor, an experience so different to the ordinariness of life and the seeming-ordinariness of Catholicism so as to attract the attention of these kids in such a way so as to make them desire such a change and seek it with the assistance of those they will encounter this weekend.
After this weekend, the attendees will never again believe the lie that the Church is old and old-fashioned, because they will encounter tens of thousands of other young people who are proudly Catholic.
They will never again believe the lie that the Church has nothing for them, because there are hundreds of different events and activities on offer, showing that while there is only one faith and one Church, there are countless ways in which to experience it. And they will never again believe the lie that they are alone in their faith, because they will meet new friends who will be by their side for life.
I know they will happen, because it has happened at every WYD and every ACYF that has been put on, and I am thrilled not only for the young people involved, but for the Church in Australia more generally, because we all benefit from the enthusiasm and zeal of the young.
I’d like to encourage anyone outside the age range and who is able to attend the final Mass, to be held in the Domain at 6.30pm on Saturday, 9 December.
Not only will your presence be a sign of support and encouragement for these young Catholics, but I know that being in their presence will lift your spirits as well. See you there!