When I volunteered to talk to you about World Youth Day in Sydney 2008, I knew it would not be an easy speech to write.
There are so many things I wish I could explain, so many pictures I wish I could portray, so many feelings I wish you all could feel. I could talk about the waving of thousands of flags, the spontaneous singing in the streets. I could tell of the many friendships forged: not only within my own group, but also nationally and even internationally.
I could recount adventures and misadventures in and around Sydney. I could report the many messages from his holiness Pope Benedict XVI, or the wisdom shared by the bishops from around the world who addressed pilgrims in Catechesis teachings each day.
I could try to describe the feeling of being in a crowd of hundreds of thousands, all worshipping and praising the same one true God. I could attempt to convey the incredible feelings at the Saturday night vigil, the sight of the candles everywhere, and the sound of so many voices raised to the heavens, declaring their desire to become witnesses.
But in all honesty, there is nothing I can say that will truly sum up all that happened at World Youth Day. There are no words to describe the spiritual highs of finding oneself in God’s light. Language doesn’t provide sufficient material to express the feeling of hearing the leader of our church encourage and challenge the youth of the world to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and become true witnesses for Jesus Christ.
One lonely voice cannot speak for the many who shared their testimonies and inspired us with their lives. And one simple human woman cannot replace the tangible presence of our Lord rushing through the lives and hearts and minds of those who attended World Youth Day. So instead, I will share with you some of the many lessons that I and my fellow pilgrims learned while in Sydney, some of the messages we have been asked to bring home to you. World Youth Day taught me about the world:
• I learned that our world is not doomed, not anywhere near it. I learned that the youth of this world care and can and will make a difference.
• I learned that while despair may be ever present, hope springs eternal.
• I learned that what we need to work the hardest for is unity—first in our own lives, then in the church. And if we just start small, we will affect the whole world.
• I learned that the world is a really big place, but also surprisingly small.
• I learned that humanity doesn’t always choose to be the worst possible version of itself, as the media would lead us to believe—the kindness and openness of the many ‘Sydnydians’ (as we called them) who opened their homes, churches, and streets to us evidenced this.
• I learned that wherever we go in the world, the pianists among us will always find and gravitate towards a piano.
• I learned that arguments between our countries don’t have to mean arguments between our peoples—we heard of a group of Iraqi Catholics approaching some American pilgrims to tell them that they loved America.
• I learned that we all have things we can teach each other, and we all have things we can learn from each other regardless of age, race, religion, or gender.
World Youth Day taught me about life:
• I learned that there are hundreds of thousands of young Catholics the world over who are proud to be Catholic—and who even made up songs and chants to show it!
• I learned that sleeping on the gap between two airbeds pushed together isn’t as uncomfortable as it sounds; and that sleeping on solid concrete is.
• I learned that age in years has very little to do with who belongs at a World Youth Day.
• I learned that all extremes of emotion fit in one person in one day during life-altering experiences like this.
• I learned that being able to laugh at ourselves is a very precious gift that should perhaps be practised a little more frequently.
• I learned that young people can think deeply about issues that matter and discuss them wisely too.
• I learned that instead of just accepting that things could be better, we should choose to make them so. As his holiness Pope Benedict (fondly known as ‘Popey’ or ‘Benny’ to us pilgrims) said, we are not the church of tomorrow, we are the church of now and we need to act now for now—and we need the support of the rest of the church to do it.
• I learned that looking beneath the surface of ourselves and other people is not only important but also a necessary part of living and learning.
• I learned that sleep isn’t as necessary as it seems.
• I learned that spontaneity is the basis of the best adventures.
• I learned that World Youth Day isn’t about answering questions, but rather encouraging us to ask them, and to delve deeper into our faith.
World Youth Day taught me about that faith:
• I learned that Jesus has to come first and that if I manage that, I’ll never go wrong.
• I learned that going to Mass on Sunday doesn’t constitute either being a Catholic or being a part of a church.
• I learned that loving people you know can sometimes be harder than loving those you don’t.
• I learned that community is the second most important thing about church. When we act as a community, all members are cared for and loved; acting as a community meant that our group coped when a pilgrim found themselves without a cashflow, that people who became lost were always found and everyone was watched out for by somebody else.
• I learned that God can, will, and does provide for all our needs on a daily basis.
• I learned that the simplest prayers are often the most meaningful when we stop to truly understand them—consider the depth and expanse of the Our Father sometime.
• I learned that church doesn’t have to be boring, and religious people don’t have to be serious—take for example the monk we saw playing hackey.
• I learned that while we can accomplish a little on our own, what we can achieve as a community is astounding: the community of St Joseph’s Upper Hutt collectively sent 32 pilgrims to Sydney to learn about themselves, each other, their faith, and most of all, their God. This is no small feat.
Most of all, World Youth Day taught me that our God is an awesome, powerful God of love who not only reigns from above and in our hearts, but has a real tangible presence in our lives and our world. If we allow God to work through us, we can bring about unity, justice, peace and wholeness in a world that so often seems so very broken.
I believe that the greatest message of WYDSYD08 is one of hope—hope for our world, our church, our society, and for our generation—a generation that many have deemed hopeless, but which has travelled the world to show that world that we care.
The Holy Spirit has come upon us, we have received power and we have been sent out to rock the world.
For those looking for a follow up to their WYD experience, Chris Duthie-Jung is teaching a paper on youth leadership through the Catholic Education Centre next month. More details ph: 04-496 1718 or firstname.lastname@example.org.