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Sydney Catholics gather for Seven Churches Visitation

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Bishop Richard Umbers said that in areas of Sydney where the custom was new, local parishes rose admirably to the occasion, and in the central west and west, the turnout was very enthusiastic. Photo; Supplied
Bishop Richard Umbers said that in areas of Sydney where the custom was new, local parishes rose admirably to the occasion, and in the central west and west, the turnout was very enthusiastic. Photo; Supplied

By George Al-Akiki and Darren Ally

It was just past 9pm on Holy Thursday when three coach buses carrying 130 Catholics arrived at St Peter Chanel’s Berala for their first stop on the Visitation of the Seven Churches.

Cousins Natalia Matar and Rita Eltakchi along with their friend Samira Khoury had boarded the bus at St Raymond’s in Auburn shortly after Mass and were amazed by the huge crowd of youth gathered in front of the parish.

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“It’s great to see people have this connection with God when you’re young, and to share this with other young people,” said Samira.

Whether by parish-organised buses, through carpooling or lone endeavours, Catholics across Sydney this year took up the Visitation of Seven Churches tradition as they embarked on a local one-night pilgrimage to reflect on Christ’s Passion.

It was the first year the pilgrimage was supported and promoted by the Archdiocese of Sydney, through the office of Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation, Bishop Richard Umbers.

Priests and parishioners responded in droves, with churches across Sydney open until midnight, priests hearing confessions late into the evening and the streets alive with Catholics meditating on the Passion of Christ.

Bishop Umbers said that in areas of Sydney where the custom was new, local parishes rose admirably to the occasion, and in the central west and west, the turnout was very enthusiastic.

“For a first time, the response was pretty good!” he said.

The “first evangelisers” of the church are lay Catholics, he added, and an event like the Visitation of the Seven Churches makes it easy for people to invite their friends and family to participate in the faith.

“A question a typical parishioner might is ‘Look, I’m on board with evangelisation but I just don’t know how to do it,’” he said.

The added layer of archdiocesan support and encouragement meant people could plan their pilgrimage knowing the churches would be open, which encouraged parishioners to make the full seven.

The understated Aussie temperament lends itself well to silent adoration and contemplation, Bishop Umbers added, with a splash of “have a go” attitude contributing to the strong turnout on the night.

Catholics across Sydney this year took up the Visitation of Seven Churches tradition as they embarked on a local one-night pilgrimage to reflect on Christ’s Passion. Photo: Supplied
Catholics across Sydney this year took up the Visitation of Seven Churches tradition as they embarked on a local one-night pilgrimage to reflect on Christ’s Passion. Photo: Supplied

Bishop Umbers visited seven churches in the Shire, and said parishioners and priests were “pleasantly surprised” to see a bishop making the pilgrimage himself.

“Look, it was wonderful! To be with everyone, that is very synodal,” he said.

St Raymond’s priest and youth chaplain Fr Michael Boudaher was one of many priests happy to see their parishioners and youth out on the streets for Christ.

“They have the most profound and inspiring faith. They said they want to do this, even if it takes us past 1am!” he said.

Mother and son, Lucy and Jared Elbaghd, embarked on a journey with Jesus to parishes throughout Lidcombe, Strathfield and Punchbowl.

“I’ve done it every single year for the last few years and I love it,” said Lucy.

“I love being able to share this with my son. I’m looking forward to seeing where the night takes us,” she said.

Jarrod said the poignant experience makes the ancient tradition more moving by his mother’s side, as Mary was with her son.

“In Roman times, we know the tradition was to visit seven churches, but more than that it originated from our Lady who followed Jesus on his Passion,” says Jarrod.

For the Corson family, mum Camille, daughter Maria and son James from Canberra, the experience was a first.

“We’ve never heard of it before. We came to church and decided to join the trek for a deeper experience into Holy Thursday and a pilgrimage with Jesus,” says mum Camille.

Priests and parishioners responded to the Visitation of Seven Churches in droves, with churches across Sydney open until midnight. Photo: Supplied
Priests and parishioners responded to the Visitation of Seven Churches in droves, with churches across Sydney open until midnight. Photo: Supplied

“We’re trying to be that comfort and beautiful presence during His time of suffering.”

Daughter Maria said it was exciting to journey with others to the local churches.

“I just want to give Jesus a big hug. There’s a real big, long hug across these three days to our Lord to then really celebrate on Easter Sunday!”

Over in the Parramatta region, nearly 120 people joined Our Lady of Lebanon’s youth group for a night of solemn prayer.

A reflection from one of the bus leaders early in the night set the tone for parishioner Mark Khodair’s time with Jesus.

“It into perspective that it was Christ’s three closest friends and disciples invited to the garden who could not even remain awake for him in his hour of need,” he recalled.

“I realised this tradition is about not abandoning Jesus on the night before he is about to offer himself as the greatest sacrifice.

Social coordinator Natalie Mejalli usually spends the night travelling to churches with family, but this year wanted to experience the communal journey with the parish.

“We spend a lot of our time asking things of God, but we really should be listening to him, hearing his voice and what he wants us to be doing,” she said.

“His sacrifice was for us, so doing those things really brings together the whole theme of his passion and Easter.”

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