During August of this year I was fortunate enough to attend the 2011 World Youth Day (WYD) in Madrid, Spain. The event was made all the more special for the great privilege I was given, along with another Australian, Ben Winkels (see page 8), to personally welcome Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of Australia and walk with the Holy Father through the Puerta De Alcala, the traditional gateway to the city of Madrid.
Blessed John Paul II initiated WYD in 1985 to bring young people together to share and strengthen their faith and through this to strengthen the Church. He saw the urgency of preparing young people for the challenges that would be presented to their faith in a modern world, by an antagonistic culture.
"Young people ... of the world, listen to what Christ the Redeemer is saying to you! 'To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.' The World Youth Day challenges you to be fully conscious of who you are as God's dearly beloved sons and daughters" (John Paul II, Denver, 1993).
Since 1987 every WYD has had a motto taken from the Gospels. The motto of WYD 2011 was, "Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith" (Col 12:7).
On the evening of the Papal arrival for WYD Pope Benedict spoke to us on this Gospel: "There are words which serve only to amuse, as fleeting as an empty breeze, while others to an extent inform us. Those of Jesus, on the other hand, must reach our hearts, take root and bloom there all our lives. If not they remain empty and become ephemeral."
Through these words the Pope had given us a challenge: we must resist becoming absorbed in the temporal needs and distractions of this world and rather fix our gaze on the eternal, opening our hearts to Christ, and building our lives on Him.
It is always surprising how WYD transforms a city. Local families with whom we stayed remarked that the feeling of the city was almost unrecognisable with the spirit the youth brought to Madrid. Their solidarity and happiness brought out an air of generosity of which every local seemed to want to be a part. In stark contrast with the scenes of the London riots, where young people, whose contempt and disregard for authority was the big news topic of the day, Madrid was a city filled by youth with a positive, edifying direction and purpose in their lives.
Many pilgrims, one way or another, experience a conversion at WYD. Yet the question always is whether these conversions will transfer back to the spiritual health of a parish, a diocese or the Church as a whole. One indicator has been that after each WYD there has always been a rise in priestly and religious vocations, such as occurred in Australia after WYD Sydney in 2008. The pilgrims' experiences build up their faith and, for some, open their eyes to Christ's message for the first time in their lives.
WYD is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. It has strengthened my faith and, in line with Blessed John Paul II's challenge, has enabled me to become more conscious of who I am as one of God's children to take up the daily challenge, not only of practising, but also spreading the faith of Christ's Holy Catholic Church.