It is expected about 2,000 young Australians will be participating in the forthcoming World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, from 16-21 August 2005. This is by far the greatest number to attend any World Youth Day since its inception in 1984. Every diocese, church group and movement in the Church in Australia will be represented.
The Australian delegation will also include various group pilgrimages that will take in the holy sites of Europe like Lourdes, Assisi and Lisieux, as well as the lands of St Paul in Greece and Turkey.
Among the many pilgrimages planned for Cologne throughout Australia there are two from the Archdiocese of Perth: Pathways of St Paul and World Youth Day Direct (which will also visit the original Schoenstatt Shrine in Germany). Bishop Don Sproxton (Perth Auxiliary), Fr Don Kettle and Lucas Hurley (Catholic Youth Ministry) will be leading these pilgrimages.
The Melbourne Archdiocese is anticipating 300 pilgrims will travel on its two pilgrimage options, accompanied by Archbishop Hart and Bishops Prowse and Deakin, as well as a number of clergy and religious and forty youth leaders especially chosen by Archbishop Hart.
Archbishop Denis Hart has been an enthusiastic supporter of WYD, setting up Australia's first WYD office, independent from other diocesan youth agencies. He sees many of these young men and women as the future leaders of the Church in Melbourne: so far from the direct WYD experience there have been eight marriages, five vocations to the priesthood and many inquiries about religious vocations.
The Melbourne WYD group have achieved a national first. A song which it submitted to the German co-ordinators of WYD titled "We have come to Worship Him", performed by a past WYD pilgrim Gary Pinto, has been selected as one of the acts to be performed in Cologne during WYD week from over 500 applications from around the world.
The Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community are organising pilgrimages from different parts of Australia, while in the Sydney Archdiocese, Cardinal Pell is sponsoring over one hundred young people to attend World Youth Day.
In proportion to its population, Australia has been one of the most well-represented countries at the international World Youth Days. This has been due to the active involvement of parishes, dioceses, youth ministries, lay workers, clergy, communities and movements throughout the country.
There have been a number of Australians present since 1984, with the first united Australian delegation - comprising 500 young people accompanied by one bishop - attending Paris in 1997. In Rome in 2000, this figure increased to 1270, accompanied by four archbishops and five bishops, and at Toronto in 2002, 1300 attended along with six archbishops and nine Bishops.
While the Holy Father has attended all World Youth Days to date, it is unlikely he will be present this year due to the fragility of his health. This will be a major disappointment to himself and the participants, given the deep spiritual bond between John Paul II and young Catholics privileged to encounter him. However, he will undoubtedly participate through the medium of television.
In 1984 John Paul II invited the world's youth to gather in Rome for a special celebration and 300,000 young Catholics came. The following year marked the United Nations International Year of Youth and the Pope used the occasion to extend a second invitation to the young people. This time, 400,000 people flooded the streets of Rome on Palm Sunday.
The success of these events inspired the Pope to create a much larger and more powerful biennial event to be organised by the Catholic Church, known as World Youth Day.
Since then, celebrations have taken place in the following host cities: Buenos Aires, Santiago de Compostela, Czestochowa, Denver, Manila, Paris, back to Rome in 2000 (for the Great Jubilee), and Toronto in 2002. For the past 19 years the World Youth Days have become the largest single, international mobilisation of young people - from over 150 countries - the world has ever seen.
The World Youth Day is actually a week-long program of faith-related events in a colourful international environment. Young people come from Africa, North and South America, Asia, the Pacific and Europe to meet with each other and - at least until now - with the Holy Father in a vibrant, Catholic, festival-like atmosphere.
The effects of the World Youth Days have been profound. Testimonials of thousands of young people speak of a deep faith experience with practical life implications. Parish communities and host cities have reported a renewed involvement of youth in the Church and the signs of a young and energetic Catholicism emerging at the cutting edge of the third millennium.
Certainly, many of the benefits are yet to be seen and will bring their fruits to bear on the Church of the future.
Undoubtedly, a generation of young people has been moved by the World Youth Day initiative. They have become engaged and acquainted with their Pope in a way not seen in any other generation. They have been challenged by him to look at their faith in a new way and to make their unique contribution to the Church and to the world.
Looking beyond Cologne, it is hoped the next World Youth Day will be held in Sydney. A feasibility study is presently underway to determine the viability of a Sydney-hosted World Youth Day, an event comparable in size to the Sydney Olympics.