When World Youth Day volunteer, Jason Mackiewicz, had lunch with the pope, and 11 other young adult representatives he was overwhelmed by the symbolism of the event.
Here they were, these disciples, ‘breaking bread’ with the Church’s leader and one other, the German Bishops’ Conference delegate, Bishop Bode.
Another point of significance for today’s Church might have been the fact that there were women as well as men among the diners.
Jason says it was a tremendously spiritual moment for him, being in such a small group and spending an hour and a half with a pope who came across as a humble servant, a listener.
‘He [the pope] was very engaged with the person who was speaking and it felt very intimate. What made the occasion even more intimate was that all the media left as soon as the pontiff had greeted everyone.
‘What surprised me was that we weren’t there to hear him speaking but he was there to listen to us.’
The young people were chosen by country ‘and I was fortunate to be one of three from Australasia’. Possibly in recognition of the voluntary work they had done to organise World Youth Day, seven or eight of the 12 had been chosen from the WYD office.
Heads of departments had suggested names to the secretaries for the various places the volunteers could meet the pope – for some it was at the airport, for others, at Mass on Friday morning for others it was being on the altar stage at the big Mass.
Jason says he was impressed with the fact that the pope never seemed to put himself in first place. He was very patient with us. He let us speak, never interrupted us, contributed to what we were saying and expressed his own thoughts.
One of Pope Benedict’s titles which introduced him to the world was ‘servant of servants’ and Jason says this description summarised for him the person he met.
‘I was trying not to have a view of him before he had had a chance to be himself as pope … I was able to enjoy discovering who he was.’
Even the German people were surprised at how friendly and warm he was.
At the climax of the week that was World Youth Day, the Mass the pope celebrated at Marienfeld for the million pilgrims, Jason says Benedict managed to give an impression of intimacy.
‘He could have been celebrating in a parish with 30 people instead of the huge WYD crowd.
‘This was his humility. It was him putting his role as priest and as servant of Christ completely before himself’.
Jason says a particular highlight of his six months in Cologne was the bond that he and fellow volunteer from Wellington, Antonia McBryde, developed with other volunteers who started work there in the same week.
‘When at times we didn’t see each other for two months, until the next seminar, that feeling of being together and being supported carried us through.’
The day that John Paul died, we had a picnic on Marienfeld. We had the idea of going there to see what the space was like.
Jason says one of the people there disapproved of celebrating as the pope lay dying but most others felt it was appropriate since they didn’t know that he would die that day.
When they heard that the pope had died, the revellers went to the chapel and prayed. There, he says, he felt a closeness and support from each other.
Over the lunch with Pope Benedict, Jason said, the comment was made that there were a lot of priests coming out of Africa.
‘Benedict said that this was good but the problem was that they were not well supported. Once they became a priest they were thrown into the job and they needed the support of people around them.
‘He saw the positive and the need in it as well.’
Jason feels a good deal of hope for the future of the Church under Pope Benedict XVI because of this dialogue.
‘A person who can comment very realistically about what’s going on, is going to take issues like the Eucharistic synod seriously and he is the servant leader as well so I guess he’s going to listen to the multitude of perspectives and do his best to reflect on some of those perspectives with his own conscience.’
Having been to two World Youth Days and helped organise one, Jason feels he has some experience to offer the organisers of the next World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.
He thinks it will be very different because of the great flexibility that Australians and New Zealanders have in their approach to organising large events.