Faith: alive and well! - A pilgrim's progress

Faith: alive and well! - A pilgrim's progress

Catherine Sheehan


World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney was an inspiring, joyful and overwhelming event. It was a week of immense crowds and unbelievable noise; of pilgrims chanting, singing, dancing, and the sound of bongo drums; of colourful flags from all around the world; of European pilgrims chanting 'Viva il Papa!' and 'Bene-detto!' and Aussies chanting 'Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!' or 'Bene! Bene! Bene! Oi! Oi! Oi!'

What struck me the most was the size of the crowds that converged on Sydney and their infectious joy and love for the Catholic Church and the Pope. There were many bewildered Sydneysiders, strolling around the city on their lunch breaks, as priests and nuns in distinctive attire, and pilgrims from every corner of the globe, traipsed around their city. I overheard one local talking on his mobile phone say, 'I can't believe how many Catholic pilgrims there are. They're everywhere!'

As well as all the main events of WYD, I was also fortunate enough to be able to attend many of the Youth Festival Events and talks held around Sydney's CBD. At the 'Love and Life Site' at Notre Dame University in Broadway, Monsignor Riley from the US spoke movingly on abortion. Having been at Ground Zero in New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack, he likened the terrorist act to the act of abortion. He spoke of the people trapped inside the towers, completely helpless with nowhere to run or hide, as the planes came towards their buildings.

The child within the womb is likewise helpless, he said, with nowhere to run or hide when the instruments of abortion enter the womb. He emphasised the need for pro-lifers to show compassion and support for women who are exploited by abortion. Director of Women's Forum Australia, Melinda Tankard Reist, also spoke on the many ways that abortion exploits and damages women.

At the Dominican gathering in the magnificent Great Hall at Sydney University, Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, spoke on 'The Debate over Creation and Evolution.' There was standing room only as young pilgrims flocked into the hall. The Cardinal invited the pilgrims to sit up on the stage with the other Dominican priests, brothers and nuns. The young people were sitting literally at his feet to hear his words of wisdom.

Cardinal Schönborn emphasised the need to reject materialism and accept that science cannot explain immaterial realities like the mind, intelligence or falling in love. He asserted that the way forward in this debate is through natural philosophy, that creation is a book we can read and that reality is understandable. In response to the mystery of suffering in the world, he argued that the Cross is the key to God's plan, and Resurrection the meaning of evolution.

I also attended an inter-faith dialogue session at Darling Harbour, hosted by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt. The panel of speakers included Archbishop Fitzgerald, and members of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faiths. There was also a larger panel consisting of young people from many different faiths.

It was questioned whether inter-faith dialogue was worthwhile, as those who believe strongly in their own faith as the ultimate form of truth are unlikely to benefit from such gatherings. However, many asserted that the aim of inter-faith dialogue was not to convert others, or to compromise one's own faith, but to work together on those areas that the different faiths hold in common, in order to achieve a better society.

Jews and Muslims impressed

What came across strongly from the members of the panel, especially from those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, was how impressed they were with World Youth Day, as a joyful and universal celebration of faith. Some expressed the desire that there be something similar for their own young people.

At Darling Harbour's Exhibition Centre there was a massive Vocations Expo, featuring stalls set up by different religious orders and various seminaries, and information about the priesthood. Live music was played and there were several performances throughout the week of Pope John Paul II's play 'The Jeweller's Shop,' which explores love between men and women and the vocation of marriage. Many priests made themselves available for anyone wanting spiritual direction.

There were many wonderful, unexpected moments during the WYD week. One such moment will stay in my mind forever. When crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the Saturday morning with thousands of happy pilgrims, beginning the long trek to Randwick, we processed past a high-rise construction site. The builders on the site had stopped working and were watching the massive crowd of noisy pilgrims going past below. Then one of the builders lifted up two long pieces of wood that he had nailed together to form a large cross. He held it high above his head for all to see. The pilgrims went crazy, cheering and clapping him.

Another memorable moment was standing on an overpass and watching an interminable flow of pilgrims passing beneath as they left Barangaroo, after the Pope's welcome on the Thursday night. The noise was incredible, with large groups of pilgrims from Germany, Spain, Italy, USA, and many other countries, chanting simultaneously in their own languages, and at the top of their voices.

I have never seen such passion from any crowd of people, not even at an Essendon and Collingwood match at the MCG. The pilgrims were on a high after seeing the Pope and were full of joy. Several of us standing on the overpass waved our national flags at the pilgrims below and were rewarded with a resounding roar and a renewal of the chant 'Bene-detto!', which pilgrims from all countries took up together.

I stood on that overpass for perhaps 15 minutes just watching this awesome parade of young people. I have never witnessed anything like it. If those happy, young pilgrims are the future of the Catholic Church, then it's going to be a very bright future indeed.

Catherine Sheehan is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne.

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