World Youth Day, Madrid, 15-21 August, 2011, has not long concluded having proved to be another stunning success with one million young adults cramming the ancient stronghold of Catholicism for the week's celebration of faith with youthful fervour.
Australia sent 3,000 pilgrims to Spain for WYD, 2011 - including more than 1,000 young men and women from Sydney. All states and all dioceses were represented by pilgrims in Madrid with six bishops, including Cardinal George Pell, and many priests, nuns and brothers accompanying the youthful pilgrims.
The WYD theme was taken from St Paul: "Planted and built up in Jesus Christ. Firm in the Faith!" The Opening Mass was on Tuesday, 16 August, at the vast Cibeles Square in Madrid while Pope Benedict XVI arrived two days later and presided at a series of events until the final Sunday Mass at a military Air Force base on the outskirts of the city (see page 20).
World Youth Day was the brainchild of Pope John Paul II. In 1985, he established the event as an international festival of Catholic faith to be held in a major world capital over seven days, every two to three years. Of the seven days, one is nominated WYD. And over the following years these became one of the signature initiatives of his pontificate.
Each WYD has provided a memorable focus for practising young Catholics (and searchers) to affirm and celebrate their faith with hundreds of thousands of other young men and women in a range of religious, evangelising and social activities.
In the context of the United Nations International Youth Year, Pope John Paul recalled his own experience as a young priest engaged in university chaplaincy at St Florian's Church in Krakow's Old Town. At the same time, the World Youth Days tapped into the backpacker lifestyle of many young adults during their "gap years" and university studies, as well as the pilgrimage motif in many people's psyche at critical times in their lives, and young adulthood is one of these times.
In his later years, John Paul recalled the genesis of WYD among his friends in Krakow and their exploration of the personal and vocational dynamics during adolescence and young adulthood. His early papal pilgrimages, in Italy and abroad, convinced him that a pastoral strategy of accompaniment with young people was as valid for a Pope as it had been for a newly-ordained priest. Moreover, his young people loved travelling through Europe during the short northern summer and university vacation.
In 1985, John Paul II marked the UN International Youth Year with his Palm Sunday meeting with 300,000 young people in Rome. His Apostolic Letter, To the Youth of the World, mixed personal reminiscence with exhortation. WYD developed from this event and its offerings were strictly orthodox, mainstream Catholic life and practice.
Within a few years, a common pattern emerged in WYD celebrations, as in the most recent, in Madrid. A constant theme has been the presence and unity of varied cultures representing the universal Church. Flags and other national symbols illustrate their attendance and proclaim their own Catholic emphases; also patriotic chants and national songs with a Catholic flavour.
Over the course of major events, national objects are traded. Flags, shirts, crosses and other Catholic icons are carried by pilgrims and in the last day or two of the festival shared around among people of different countries.
The Pope visits each World Youth Day but obviously cannot attend every event. Benedict XVI's age means that he has had to pace himself confining his appearances to celebrating the final Mass and being present at some of the major festival events.
World Youth Days share common features but the format has not been static as new ideas percolate and new developments add to the power of the life-changing experiences for many young adults.
Among the newer features of recent World Youth Days have been the side-pilgrimages as the young people left Australia, bound for Madrid. The Archdiocese of Melbourne, for example, sent over 200 pilgrims in three groups, one of which, titled "Footsteps of Jesus", visited the Holy Land en route. Another, "Italian Road Trip", visited sacred sites in Italy while a third, "Real Madrid", involved additional time in the Spanish capital.
Another feature has been the "Days in the (various) Dioceses" within the host nation prior to the main events. Pilgrim groups visit another major city to spread the message of WYD far-and-wide.
A third innovation has been the Pope's meetings - within the WYD week - with special "focus groups" of young Catholics at ticketed events. In Spain, Benedict XVI met with three target groups: with 6,000 seminarians in Madrid's Almuderia Cathedral; with a large group of young nuns in Toledo; and with over 1,000 young Catholic academics from around the world.
WYD in Sydney gave the Church's ministry special encouragement with young adult Catholics. We can still recall vividly that 13-20 July 2008 festival and the final Papal Mass on Randwick Racecourse which drew 400,000 pilgrims from around Australia and overseas.
Those numbers may pale before the vast one million young Catholics assembled in Madrid, but they represented the largest gathering in Australia's history.
Hopefully, WYD Madrid will act as a similar catalyst as we await the next WYD in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013.