I have to admit, I am suffering from some serious FOMO (fear of missing out) right now. As my social media feed is filled with images of friends and colleagues joining thousands of other Aussies on the World Youth Day pilgrimage, I can’t help but want to jump on a plane and join them. The beautiful images of pilgrims praying on the shores of Lake Galilee, in Assisi and other sites so central to the story of Catholicism, as well as the joyful arrival of pilgrims into Lisbon, have brought a great big smile to my face.
Don’t get me wrong. “Rational Monica” knows that she is 41 years old and doesn’t really want to be dragging her luggage in the 40-degree heat of a Middle Eastern or European summer, and that Masses with a congregation of millions of young people present are not the most conducive to her prayer life, but there is just something so wonderful about WYD that makes me want to be a part of it.
Fifteen years after Sydney hosted WYD, I can honestly say that the experience changed the course of my life: not the week itself, but the encounter with God and His people in the years leading up to that historic week was a defining period for me.
The people I met during the preparations for WYD are amongst my closest friends, confidants and collaborators, people who I look up to and lean on when I need my own faith to be renewed, and whose lives continue to witness to the joy that comes from going “all in” for God.
As I scan through the photos of this year’s WYD celebrations, I spot three friends of mine who I met in the lead up to the 2008 Sydney and 2011 Madrid World Youth Days. At the time I met them, one was working in insurance, another an architect who had taken a year off to volunteer for Catholic Youth Services, the third a lawyer. Now, all three are priest chaplains for WYD Sydney pilgrims, ushering the next generation of Catholics through the experiences we shared.
I spot another two friends who met each other in the Holy Land on the way to WYD Madrid, now back there to renew their wedding vows at the church in Cana. Another young man who I met as a 16-year-old troublemaker on our pilgrimage through Italy and Spain in 2011 is doing WYD again, this time with his lovely fiancée.
I am certain that all the pilgrims travelling to WYD this year will be able to look back on these days in 10 or 20 years’ time with similar memories and gratitude, and I am so happy for them.
As I get older and become more deeply embedded in the church, I have come to appreciate more acutely the wisdom behind WYD. I always thought the main reason St John Paul II instituted WYD was to show young Catholics that they weren’t alone in a world that is increasingly irreligious and anti-Christian.
The pastoral guidelines for the celebration of WYD issued by the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life cite a slightly different and much more simple explanation from St John Paul II as the reason for the initiative: “All young people must feel that they are cared for by the church,” the pope told cardinals back in 1985.
But I think the real genius of WYD comes from its ability to bring together the young people that will be future leaders in the church, ordained and lay, and give them a large group of brothers and sisters in Christ that will be there for them in the years ahead.
I know I would not be able to do my role if it wasn’t for the friendship, support and prayers of those I met on the three WYDs I attended. I know of so many others serving in so many ways who are accompanied in their ministries by their WYD family. And I firmly believe that God, in his divine wisdom, did not bring us together for WYD itself, but because he knew that we would need each other in the crazy times the church is facing now and will continue to face in the future.
Thanks be to God for WYD. I can’t wait to see what he has planned for the pilgrims of 2023.