My first WYD in Sydney in 2008 opened my eyes to the beauty, diversity and universality of the Catholic Church.
It was incredible to see my home city come alive in a joyful celebration of faith. I realised that I was a part of something so much bigger than just my parish and youth group, but something worldwide.
In 2011, I decided with the help of my spiritual director to go to WYD in Madrid, with a pilgrimage through the Holy Land. This came at a time when I was grappling intellectually with God. Having recently finished my university degree, I was also seeking direction and purpose in my life.
Journeying through the Holy Land, the scriptures really came alive through all my senses. I encountered Christ through the Sacraments (Mass on a boat on the Sea of Galilee was a definite highlight!), listening to the Word and being in the very place where God came to dwell among us.
It was incredible how after only a week I had formed such close bonds with my fellow pilgrims, and I think that was one of the most enriching and beautiful elements of the whole experience, sharing in it together and being drawn closer to Christ and each other.
The WYD festivities in Spain were crazy. We learnt how to be positive when things didn’t go to plan.
When I was invited to be a pilgrimage co-ordinator for WYD 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, I felt so honoured and excited. In 2012 I had spent a year volunteering with Youth Mission Team Australia, and I felt as though the Lord had been preparing me, during that year, for leadership. It was honestly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I really gave my all to the role and I saw it as an opportunity to serve my brothers and sisters.
Working alongside my fellow leaders was a blast and I felt like we were able to help cultivate a positive and fun dynamic among the groups.
The responsibility meant that I had to be on the ball constantly and there were times along the journey that I was deliriously tired (and a wee bit altitude sick). But I was encouraged to reflect upon how little sacrifices produced fruit. Knowing that God was able to use me as his instrument to love and serve others was an immense joy.
I was so blessed to witness how God was at work in my fellow pilgrims, loving them and calling them to a deeper relationship with Him as we journeyed through Peru to WYD with Pope Francis in Rio.
Seeing this from a leadership perspective was also a huge encouragement for my own faith.
The crazy adventures, the late nights singing, dancing, laughing and exploring with new faces from different nationalities; the mega events of the opening mass, papal arrival, stations of the cross, and more simply overrun with people crazy about their faith. All have their place.
But the richness of WYD, the real encounter I discovered with God, was not in the throngs of the millions shouting and screaming ‘Viva El Papa!’, but in the stillness and silence of my own heart in prayer.
The pilgrims I travelled with remain some of my closest friends and we still get together regularly. ‘SYD06’ will always have a special place in my heart.
Michael Last is a Sydney musician and former Youth Mission Team Australia volunteer.
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