By Marilyn Rodrigues and Adam Wesselinoff
Representing Oceania at a Papal Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was one of the most “blessed and yet humbling” experiences of Koe Evangelista’s life.
The 22-year-old World Youth Day pilgrim and parishioner of All Saint’s Liverpool, said he felt “quite unworthy” when he received a call from the Dicastery for the Laity.
He was asked to join four other pilgrims in representing the world’s young Catholics at Mass for the World Day for Grandparents and the elderly, celebrated by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Basilica on 23 July.
Around 8000 grandparents and older people gathered for the Mass where the pilgrims representing Africa, Asia, America, Oceania, and Europe received a small WYD pilgrim cross from older Catholics from around the world.
Koe, who had only touched down in Rome two days earlier with other young adults from the Sydney Archdiocese, is also a Lasallian youth minister working across De La Salle Revesby, De La Salle Caringbah and Holy Spirit Lakemba.
He was aware that he brought thousands, if not millions, of other young people with him in spirit to the Holy Father.
“I was bringing all those who I am tied to as well, and I wanted to bring them to Pope Francis and more than that, I wanted to bring all of them to God with me,” he said.
“This was such a beautiful opportunity for me to able to do just that.”
In his homily, Pope Francis urged young people and the elderly to share their gifts and grow together, listening to each other, talking together, and supporting one another.
“In this fruitful exchange we can learn the beauty of life, build a fraternal society, and in the church be enabled to encounter one another and dialogue between tradition and the newness of the Spirit,” the pope said.
At the end of the Mass, older representatives of varying countries symbolically handed World Youth Day crosses to several young people who will take part in the festival in Lisbon, Portugal, on 1-6 August.
It signified the transmission of grace from older generations to today’s youth as well as the commitment of the elderly to pray for the pilgrims.
“Be strong in this sign of faith which you have received as a gift in baptism, that you may grow in and witness it to the world,” Pope Francis said to them.
Sydney pilgrims begin their journey in Italy and the Holy Land
Meanwhile, the rest of Sydney’s World Youth Day pilgrims have hit the ground running in Italy and the Holy Land, and are already making memories to last a lifetime.
The Holy Land pilgrims began their journey with visits to the Dead Sea, Mt Nebo and the River Jordan.
“It wasn’t just the river we got to experience—we also had a taste of the ‘wilderness’ that John the Baptist, the desert fathers, and indeed Our Lord experienced,” pilgrim Juliette Khoury shared with The Catholic Weekly.
“We struggled to last a few hours though, trekking through the stifling desert to visit sites along the way to the river, including the site at which it is believed the baptism of Our Lord took place—today not much more than a puddle surrounding by ruins of a thrice-built church.”
Accompanied by Wilcannia-Forbes Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green, the pilgrims braved the heat and thirst to renew their baptismal promises and celebrated Mass on Mt Nebo.
They also made visits to the churches of the Shepherd’s Field, St Catherine, the Nativity, the Visitation and St John the Baptist, along with other holy sites.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Divine Child at Bethlehem University, with Vice-Chancellor Br Peter Bray FSC in attendance to speak to the pilgrims about the situation for Christians in Israel-Palestine.
Fr Roberto Keryakos said he was particularly moved by the murals of the child martyrs that decorate the chapel, and a text in Latin above the sacristy that read, “These are the new lambs.”
“The faces of these children in the chapel depict an infectious joy and simplicity that made me reflect on how apt it is to regularly examine how we might be travelling in our own spiritual lives.
“Tonight I prayed that this image of these beautiful child-martyrs might inspire us all as we journey together throughout the Holy Land and beyond, that we might be filled with joy even in the sufferings of life and that we might also be playful and generous in following the call of God in our lives.”
Mass with Archbishop Fisher at the Church of St Catherine in Bethlehem—part of the complex which includes the Basilica of the Nativity, the site of Jesus Christ’s birth—was another early highlight for the Holy Land group.
“It’s fitting that we are here for a deeper reason too: God wanted to be one of us, so we could know, love and serve him,” Archbishop Fisher said in his homily.
“He wanted eyes to search us out, see and weep with … Not because he was bored and thought dressing up as a human being was fun—no, it was for our sake, so that we could relate better to him, which is why in Catholic piety we worship God in the flesh.”
Pilgrims were moved to tears by their experience of the site where Jesus Christ entered the world, and was held in the arms of Mary.
“As soon as the choir started singing ‘O Come let us adore him’ and we were actually in the place where he was laid, it just was surreal,” pilgrim Mary Trippis said.
“And I got choked up as well trying to hide it, because it was a bit embarrassing, but I could see I wasn’t on my own experiencing those emotions.”
The Italian group also started strong, braving jetlag for a tour of Rome’s classic sites on 22 July—the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and others—with Sydney priest and Roman local, Fr Bijoy Joseph, a student at the Pontifical North American College.
The following day they enjoyed visits to St Paul’s Outside the Walls, the Coliseum and Catacombs of San Sebastian, followed by a visit to the Vatican on 24 July, including Mass at St Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Bishop Richard Umbers.
With thousands of pilgrims pouring into Europe, currently in the midst of a heatwave, the Italian pilgrims are having to match the endurance of their counterparts from previous ages.
“With the heat and the crowds, this has been a tough pilgrimage so far. But I think it is supposed to be tough. It’s the suffering that makes it valuable,” a Sydney Catholic Schools pilgrim said.