Young practising Catholics can feel very isolated; at World Youth Day, Sydney, 15-20 July, they came together in vast numbers; they were no longer alone. They gave testimony to their faith and were clear and focussed in their witness.
WYD has passed and now we look forward to World Youth Day, Madrid, in three years time. Meanwhile, in a bold attempt to recapture the WYD spirit, the Sydney iWitness team, led by Amy Vierboom and Patrick Langrell, put together a successful Retreat/Conference at the Collaroy Convention Centre on Sydney's Northern Beaches on 21-24 November 2008.
Over 200 young people attended, mostly from suburban Sydney, but also from as far afield as Ingham in far north Queensland, the Hunter Valley of NSW, Canberra and Melbourne.
The main focus of iWitness was on enriching the participants' spiritual lives through a deepened relationship with Our Lord. There was daily Mass, morning and evening prayer from the Divine Office, all-night Eucharistic Adoration, a candle-lit Rosary in the outdoor amphitheatre led by Cardinal Pell, inspirational talks, wide-ranging discussions and question-and-answer sessions. Two priests were available for the Sacrament of Penance.
iWitness was blessed with stellar leadership: Pat Langrell and Amy Vierboom led a talented team including Jovina Graham, Elise Jackson, Sarak Edwards, Lewi Barakat, with many others.
Bishop Julian Porteous gave the keynote address, an inspirational assertion of the relevance of Jesus Christ in a secularised age which attempts to ignore God and marginalise religious people.
Saturday's program was equally serious and tightly focussed. Robert Haddad, a Maronite-rite lay leader, spoke on the central role of the Mass and Eucharist in the life of young adult Catholics.
Robert was well-informed and a lucid speaker. He is Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in NSW state schools, organising the hundreds of volunteers who teach religion to Catholic primary and secondary school students.
After lunch, Father Tony Percy, the new Director of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, addressed sexual morality taking Pope John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body' as his guide.
He recalled that as a seminarian, 20 years previously, he had a statement on the wall of his room: 'Seminarian = Expectant Father'. His talk was frank, cheerful, relevant and appreciated.
However, massive billboards across Australian cities scream: 'Want longer-lasting SEX?' Father Tony changed the word 'sex' to 'love' and placed the challenge of Christian sexual standards in the context of our Christian purpose in life. This is a tough challenge in an erotic, sex-drenched society.
The Western World has experienced a sexual revolution over forty years which has reduced sexual intercourse to a casual indoor sport with a pagan sex without strings and relationships without rings now the norm. The vision of the New Testament and the consistent teaching of the Church confront this perversion: marriage is a covenant, a one-flesh union and sex is the seal on this permanent relationship.
Popular husband and wife team, Jonathon and Karen Doyle, and three Dominican Sisters, led by Sister Moira, complemented Father Percy's talk, with separate sessions for men and women. The frank talks and Q & A sessions seemed to hit the spot if the enthusiastic applause at the sessions' ends was any guide.
After dinner, Cardinal George Pell arrived to address the Conference: he was welcomed with thunderous clapping and ear-piercing whistles as he entered the auditorium. Clearly he was among 200 young friends. His talk was on the Papacy: in witty vernacular 'Rock Solid' or 'Life on the Rock'.
Cardinal Pell traversed key issues: the difference between the magisterium, the ordinary teaching of the Church and the special ex- cathedra, infallible statements of Catholic doctrine; 'bad' Popes; and core doctrines. He answered any questions the audience chose to ask.
On Sunday morning, Sr Mary Madeleine OP spoke on veneration of Mary in Catholic religious life and then the assembly divided, some explored the topic of human suffering with the Dominican Sisters; others discussed 'Dating and Relationships' with Karen and Jonathon Doyle.
After lunch, Father Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest of the Basilian Congregation, who was the key organiser of World Youth Day, Toronto, in 2002, addressed the conference. Father Rosica is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic TV Network, which was a direct response to the WYD enthusiasm. He was a strong speaker and warmly appreciated.
After so many spiritually demanding sessions, it was time for recreation. The iWitness team had organised some vigorous sports in the ten-stage 'Amazing Pilgrimage' followed after dinner by the 'iWitness Challenge'. Water slides and other physical activities across the Collaroy Centre property were complemented by tug-of-war, wrestling and other energetic activities in the evening.
The hard physical activities after demanding sessions around many features of Catholic life were a feature of the iWitness weekend.
Then came Sunday Mass, supper, all-night Adoration and a Monday morning to reflect on an impressive weekend. The fade-out was a late morning in the cool Sydney sun on Collaroy beach. It's fair to suggest that iWitness 2009 will be equally big next year.
Dr Barry Coldrey CFC is a former secondary school teacher in Christian Brothers colleges and author of numerous books and articles.