Shannon Donahoo, who teaches Religion, Ethics and Politics at a Catholic secondary school in the Melbourne Archdiocese, attended the recent World Youth Day in Cologne.
In the past, World Youth Day has had a fairly low profile in Australia. However, with the announcement that the next WYD will be held in Sydney, that is set to change. It is likely, of course, that there will be some criticism: is WYD worth it or is it just a holy "bread and circuses" exercise?
To understand the importance of World Youth Day, it is important to understand what it is like being a young Catholic today.
Often young people are Catholic more because they are sacramentalised and educated in the Church's schools than because they have met Christ in their hearts. They are often unsure of the Church's teachings, the reasons for these and even how one is supposed to practise the faith.
And if a choice is made to identify oneself as a Catholic, and not as a "Catholic but ...", there is the risk of isolation. We often hear people complaining about the lack of young people in the Church - specifically at Mass - but place yourself in the shoes of those who do practise the faith. "Am I the only young Catholic?" It can feel that way for many, but thankfully such people are not alone. WYD demonstrates that.
World Youth Day is important because it gives young people a chance to meet other young people of faith. Not only does it put them in contact with others in the same situation, it also puts them into contact with the fullness of the faith through catechesis.
Here young Catholics are able to meet committed laity and clergy and learn from them; not just from what they say but from their personal witness. (For example, Bishop Christopher Prowse inspired many by taking the eight kilometre trek with us to the Vigil. He prayed with us, ate with us, camped under the stars with us, and walked home with us.)
The theme for this year's World Youth Day was: "We have come to worship Him", and the crux of our journey was a pilgrimage to the relics of the Magi. We had come as pilgrims to meet and be inspired by the first Christian pilgrims. We had also come to welcome Joseph Ratzinger as he returned to his homeland as Pope Benedict XVI.
On the face of it, this WYD was notable purely for the fact that a German Pope was visiting Germany on his first foreign trip. However, there was a deeper resonance to this particular WYD. For it was not a simple pontifical visit, if there is such a thing, for this was a homecoming rich with healing. The Germans were reluctant in flying their own flags, with national pride still wounded in Germany (for obvious reasons). However with WYD, Pope Benedict gave Germany ample reason to be proud.
Pilgrims from Melbourne stayed in the parish of Porz and we were struck by the effect WYD was having. People stopped us on the street to talk; strangers paid for our drinks and meals; strangers even closed their businesses and ferried us home from the papal vigil! Amy, a nurse from Melbourne, told me: "You could really see the Church in Germany needed WYD." It was true.
While buying supplies for the Papal vigil, an elderly German woman spoke excitedly to me. Her voice rose and her eyes filled with tears. I was mystified until her son translated. She wanted to thank the pilgrims for coming to Germany. World Youth Day, she said, proved that people from different cultures and races could be united peacefully. She apologised for the old Germany, the one she saw as a young girl decades ago. This was a new Germany.
A fellow pilgrim leader, Anneliese Wursthorn, remarked that "in our host parishes we could see the positive impact of WYD, for as the hosts came together to look after us guests, they became a more close knit community."
Graces abound on a pilgrimage. Time and time again I heard pilgrims comment on how much WYD meant to them, how it had inspired them to make a difference back home in Australia.
WYD is important because it is a catalyst for renewal - in the truest, best sense of that term. I know of several people who have met and married because of WYD, and several others who have recognised religious vocations because of WYD. I know of parishes that have been reinvigorated because of WYD and I know dozens of young Australians who have continued their WYD pilgrimage back home, in their schools, parishes and work places.
In my experience World Youth Day is special in providing opportunities for conversion and healing, for education and discernment. It is able to achieve in a few short days what an entire adolescence in a modern parish or school may not: the formation of a Christian character.
At World Youth Day Cologne we encountered Christ on a large scale. Now that we are home, we need to encounter Him in the depths of our hearts. That truly is the spirit of WYD.