Many of those gathered were part of the intergenerational pilgrimage group that travelled together through Italy, Poland and Austria over 27 days, which led to a wonderful reunion. Pilgrims greeted each other with love, hugs and smiles. We had missed each other since our return.
There was also a large group of people from around the diocese keen to hear about the pilgrimage and the impact it has had on participants. Some, including members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Youth Ministry team, had travelled from Sydney to bear witness to pilgrim stories.
Ably hosted by Adam Frost, the panel included pilgrimage chaplain Fr Greg Barker, teachers Matthew Perkins and Sinéad Brady and student Makenzie Baas.
When asked what attracted them to take part in the pilgrimage, the panel had a variety of answers.
Fr Greg said he volunteered to go, as he had always loved the energy of World Youth Day.
Matt expressed an initial reluctance, particularly in being part of such a large group, “but I was seeking something that I couldn’t articulate to myself and thought perhaps this could be it, and it turned out it was”.
Sinéad, who grew up in a very traditional Irish Catholic family where everything had always revolved around the Church, felt that since leaving Ireland, she had lost that connection, but hoped that the pilgrimage would “ignite that spark in my faith again”.
For Makenzie the attraction was in being with people of all ages sharing their faith − and the opportunity to see Europe.
All panellists agreed that the intergenerational nature of the journey brought something very special to the experience.
“As the only teenager in my parish it was great to interact with people under forty because I don’t usually have that opportunity,” said Makenzie.
“Faith is a journey. The more ‘vintage’ people on the pilgrimage shared such wisdom and the younger people brought so much energy. Every age group challenged each other,” said Matt.
Clearly it was the relationships people formed that defined the pilgrimage experience for the group.
“I came to realise that a pilgrimage is not just about your own personal spiritual growth. Feeling such a connectedness and trust in other people was an amazing learning curve for me. Camillus said it in one of his homilies – that we would become family to each other. I was sceptical at first but it was absolutely what happened,” said Matt.
“Most of my highlights were with others. I got so much out of it because of the relationships I formed with others,” said Sinéad.
As Fr Greg said, “You can be a person of faith on your own, but it makes much more sense if you’re sharing it. That was the strength of the pilgrimage. In the beginning you could see people on the edge of the group not quite sure but before long they were completely absorbed by it.”
Some highlights included spending time at the Hermitage in Assisi, where St Francis, as Fr Greg noted, “stood, lay and preached”. Matt mentioned how much he took away from everything Pope Francis said and mentioned the re-enactment of the time Saint John Paul II spent time with the man who tried to assassinate him.
“We talk a lot about forgiveness, but don’t necessarily see it in action. To be able to witness a modern day example of that was really powerful,” said Matt.
Sinéad described the euphoria of being a part of the Opening Mass, drenched to the bone and singing and dancing in the torrential rain, a sea of red, blue and yellow ponchos as far as the eye could see.
“When we stood to receive the Eucharist the sun shone through the clouds and we felt so happy and peaceful,” said Sinéad.
Makenzie noted that the visit to Auschwitz was very confronting.
Other pilgrims in the audience noted some very personal highlights, some of which have led to great personal healing.
When asked about the challenges of the pilgrimage, the pace of the journey and the intensity of WYD week, as well as the difficulty of explaining what the experience was like to others, were all named.
“Not being ready to move on to the next thing yet and not being able to always soak up the moment was sometimes frustrating as I knew I wouldn’t get those moments back,” said Matt.
“When we were walking out to the vigil site, all hanging on tightly to each others’ packs, it dawned on me that this is the closest I will probably get to understanding what it must be like to be a refugee. It was an important challenge for me,” said Fr Greg.
Sinéad and Makenzie agreed that trying to explain the experience to loved ones and colleagues has been difficult.
As Fr Greg said, “You’re trying to define a feeling which can be complicated.”
Matt is trying to express the impact the pilgrimage has had on him through his actions because “it is very hard to articulate it without selling it short”.
Makenzie agrees, “It is very hard to explain how things made you feel but the pilgrimage has definitely helped me understand how I can best serve God and encouraged me to keep exploring my faith.”
Panellists were asked what has changed for them since their return.
Fr Greg noted that he was very impressed with Archbishop Chris Prowse at the catechesis session during WYD and “the way I preach may now have a different tone; more practical things have crept into my ministry”.
Matt hopes that one day he can go and relive the experience at his own pace as coming straight back into the stress of work life has not allowed him “to do the journey justice”, but “I definitely have a desire to do things differently, it’s just not clearly defined for me yet.”
Sinéad said that since the pilgrimage she can more easily talk about her faith and she is seeing the impact this is having on her students.
“I have been talking about mercy with my Year 7 religion students and they are now going to run a fundraiser for Cambodia. A lot of my Year 12 students were very disconnected from their faith. While we were away they were doing their trials so in every church we visited I lit a candle and said a prayer for each student and sent them an email telling them about this and encouraging them to say a prayer before their exams. Many of them spoke to me when I got back and told me that they had said the prayer and how much they appreciated the email. I just gave them all a post school survival pack that included a set of rosary beads. I hope that they stay connected to their faith,” said Sinéad.
Fr Greg said that he would like the 71 pilgrims to go on tour around the parishes of the diocese, “to be a presence, talk, share and encourage”. He also said that it would be wonderful if pilgrims could continue to share their experiences through the diocesan communication channels so that the diocesan community could continue to be enriched.
Makenzie is keen to start going to Mass more regularly to be closer to God.
Next month’s Pints with a Purpose will focus on the 150 year diocesan celebrations with input from a historian. It should be a great night and everyone is invited.