As Chaucer's Canterbury Tales reminds us, the tradition of assisting those with special needs to pilgrimage to sacred places goes back into the first millennium of Christian history. The Scriptures, in fact, record how those with illnesses and disabilities were assisted to bathe in sacred pools, such as the Pools of Bethesda or Siloam (cf. John 5:7).
However, until 2011, this pilgrimage tradition had not featured in mainstream youth ministry in the Church in Australia, and never had there been a group of Australians with disabilities who travelled internationally to participate in World Youth Day. As a result of the partnership between the Young Order of Malta, Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the Parishes of Sydney Harbour North, a new initiative in youth ministry and volunteer service has provided the missing link for young Catholics.
During July and August 2011, 15 young people from across Australia, who have a range of disabilities, participated in the first ever international youth pilgrimage designed to enable their participation. Their disabilities included muscular dystrophy, spinabifida, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, Williams syndrome, schizophrenia, autism and other intellectual disabilities. The youngest pilgrim was 15.
Thirty-four young people volunteered to serve as carers on the pilgrimage. Ten of them were ACU nursing students while other carers were university students of law, economics or arts, and several were young professionals. All received training to be carers prior to the pilgrimage. Although the pilgrimage often was hard work, and for some the hardest work they had ever undertaken, all returned with increased faith and a greater love for Christ and the Church.
The pilgrimage commenced in Italy near Venice at an international camp for young people with disabilities, organised by the Order of Malta. 25 countries were represented and there were almost 400 participants. Following the eight day camp, the group pilgrimaged to Rome.
At Castelgandolfo, Pope Benedict individually greeted and blessed the pilgrims. After five days visiting the shrines of Rome, the pilgrimage joined Cardinal Pell and his Exodus Encounter Pilgrimage through Egypt and the Holy Land, prior to attending World Youth Day in Madrid.
As the pilgrimage progressed, it became clear to all that this was not an ordinary journey. Young people who admitted prior to the pilgrimage to being distant from the Church returned to full sacramental life. Many learned to serve or to read publicly and confidently at daily Mass, despite their disabilities. Others overcame homesickness, while all appreciated that the service of Christ through the poor and the sick is an indispensible part of being a Christian.
The pilgrimage was assisted by a doctor, a chaplain and a seminarian, and led by this writer, Camillus O'Kane and Chris Cox. The doctor, Gerard McMahon, a Sydney GP and lecturer at Notre Dame University, commented: "Our group learned the importance of becoming dead to self and alive to the service of those in need. What became increasingly apparent was that we all had needs. My work as a doctor was just as much for the young people with disabilities as it was for everyone else in the group. Each of us bore a little cross that brought us closer to Christ."
For many years, pilgrimages of this kind were considered too difficult and costly to organise from Australia, although similar pilgrimages (e.g., to Lourdes) are familiar and frequent in Europe.
The true fruit of this new initiative is still ripening. For the first time ever, a large group of young Australians with disabilities participated in a mainstream archdiocesan youth pilgrimage. There were 60 other young people on the Exodus Encounter pilgrimage who were not part of the Young Order of Malta group. Amongst them, many had never spent a full day with someone with a disability, let alone three weeks. Several commented that the presence of those with disabilities was inspiring and something to which every young Catholic should be exposed.
Cardinal Pell commented on the pilgrims with disabilities: "Many of them are great characters with marvellous senses of humour, some of them highly intelligent and good conversationalists. They brought a blessing to the wider group, and all of us in the wider group stand very much in admiration of them."
In youth ministry, there is sometimes a tendency to focus either on evangelisation, catechesis, community activities or liturgical participation on the one hand, or justice, service and good works on the other. The 2011 Pilgrimage successfully brought these elements together in a ground-breaking development.
Parents and regular carers of the participants with disabilities rejoiced at the experiences and connections of people and places which the pilgrimage made possible. Some of them also remarked that the pilgrimage was the most extraordinary form of extended respite care they had ever imagined, let alone been offered.
$350,000 was raised and spent for this project, primarily through the generous tax deductible donations of many hundreds of individuals. Future pilgrimages are planned for July 2012 to Poland and Hungary for the International Camp for Young People with Disabilities, and for July 2013 to the USA and then to Brazil for World Youth Day. If you would like to be involved in this new ministry, either as a participant with a disability, a carer or donor, please email yoom.pilgrimages @gmail.com or phone (02) 8969-3200.
Fr James McCarthy is the National Chaplain of the Young Order of Malta and the Assistant Priest at the Parishes of Sydney Harbour North. At 29, he is one of the youngest priests in Australia.