| Vocations 2016 |
Affectionately dubbed the “World Youth Day (WYD) vocation”, Fr Joshua Miechels’ experience at WYD Toronto in 2002 put him on a path that would eventually lead to his ordination as a Catholic priest of the Emmanuel Community in 2015.
While his is just one story among the two million expected in Kraków on 25 July, Fr Josh is a living example of WYD’s power for re-version, the returning of the heart to its original fervour.
He was ordained to the priesthood on 31 October, 2015, by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.
As a child, Fr Josh was impressed by the heroic lives of saints John Paul II, Maximilian Kolbe and Francis of Assisi.
Wanting to “give his life for Christ” the twelve-year-old Josh decided that he was going to become a priest. His classmates did not share his enthusiasm.
“When I told people I was going to be become a priest, everyone made fun of me,” he said. This cold response made him conclude that the priesthood was not for him and by the time he finished high school, Fr Josh said he was “pretty much a pagan”.
By early adulthood he was an atheist and it looked as though his story would end there.
In Brideshead Revisited, the novelist Evelyn Waugh describes how his characters are attached to God as if by an invisible golden thread. Although the characters wander far away from Him, at the very moment where all hope seems lost God (spoiler alert) “twitched upon the thread” bringing them back to Him.
This similar image runs through Fr Josh’s story, he explains: “God always had it in hand and he would never let me go too far”.
“It’s hard to explain but I had a conversion experience. I realised God existed and that He existed whether I believed in him or not.”
To his “horror”, he also discovered that he had a real love for people, especially people in need. He began to volunteer with the Salvos and attended Bible study at a local Baptist church.
He then enrolled in social work at Sydney University. He was encouraged by the university chaplaincy team to go on pilgrimage to WYD in Toronto, 2002.
“Encouraged is not the word,” he laughs “I’d say I was pushed to go there”.
It was not easy, and Fr Josh had to sell his car to attend. It was there that Fr Josh experienced a re-version.
“For the first time in my life, as far as the eye could see, there were young people. That changed my way of seeing. I saw that being Catholic was a real option for young people, and that it was a good option.”
Toronto was the last WYD attended by St John Paul II, and drew a crowd of 800,000 people.
Fr Josh experienced the truth that faith is not an isolated experience, and the witness of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered together in belief strengthened his own faith.
Catholics are not a homogenous group, and the WYDs give a rare opportunity for each of the “sub-cultures” to meet and interact.
At WYD, Franciscans rub shoulders with Dominicans while Missionaries of God’s Love play hacky sack with Jesuits. Capuchins sleek by on their skateboards and Missionaries of Charity pray with passers-by.
It is also a chance to witness all the different Catholic vocational states. Amid the bright backpacks and national flags one can glimpse the flash of the Roman collar or the swish of a veil. More surprising is that the face behind the collar and veil is young, vibrant and joyful.
“It was the first time in my life that I saw young priests,” said Fr Josh.
“In high school, I thought that being Catholic was just something for my parents’ age”.
The witness of so many young people gathered — and young priests — were the two “big factors” that led Fr Josh to reconsider the priesthood for the first time since primary school.
Now, Fr Josh is the chaplain who led 42 young pilgrims of the Emmanuel community on a 23-day pilgrimage travelling across the Holy Land before arriving in Kraków for WYD.
He was accompanied by two priests of the Emmanuel Community, Fr Christophe Bouvard, currently working in Manila, Philippines and Fr Rafael Starnitzky, a German born priest of the diocese of Rome who spent his childhood in Israel and will lead the pilgrims through the Holy Land.
“It’s like having gone full circle. I was a pilgrim and I received. Now I go as a priest and I give what I received. At least that’s what I’m praying for,” he said before the pilgrimage.
“It’s incredible that in my first year of priesthood I’m going to the Holy Land … I’m going to walk where Jesus walked. I hope it makes me not only a better priest but a better man, because the world needs good men.”
Fr Josh said he knew that WYD was the beginning of a deeper encounter with God, and that his real work as a priest would begin when the pilgrims returned.
“There’s a before and after; they come back differently,” he said. “They learn that God loves them irrevocably, and there’s nothing they can do to stop that! They learn that the meaning of life is to respond to that Love, that this will bring them unending happiness.”
In his address to the volunteers of the WYD in Rio, 2013 Pope Francis spoke about the increasing hostility of the world towards people of faith. He encouraged those gathered to be revolutionaries.
“I ask you to swim against the tide. Yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.”
While WYD is called a pilgrimage, it can more accurately be described as an oasis, a much-needed resting point for young people before they continue their life-long pilgrimage as revolutionaries.
These few days in Poland will give young Australians the opportunity to live their Catholicism without shame, without fear and in joy. In this way, WYD is less about planting the seed and more like bringing the plant from under the kitchen sink into the sunlight.