A faith journey like no other

I was privileged to participate in the recent World Youth Day Pilgrimage with my wife, Diana, and seventy other pilgrims representing our Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. 

For us, it was a wonderful experience, not only because it was our first visit to Europe, but it was a faith journey with a cross-section of other people. Following Bishop Wright’s desire, this was an inter-generational group, mixing, sharing, reflecting and praying together. As one of the older group members, it was inspiring to see the faith of our senior school students, young adults and so many of our diocesan teachers.

Our journey began “in the footsteps of the saints” in Italy. As we visited the towns and learnt of the lives of saints like Anthony of Padua, Catherine of Siena, Francis and Clare of Assisi and Rita of Cascia, we experienced both the medieval and new. In each place and in some of the great cathedrals of Italy we had the opportunity to reflect, to pray and to celebrate Mass together, thanks to our accompanying clergy, Bishop Bill Wright, Frs Greg Barker, Peter Street and Camillus Nwahia. This part of our journey concluded in Rome with visits to St Peter’s and other great churches, the Catacombs and historical Roman sites such as the Colosseum and the Forum. In visiting such churches, we learnt not only of their architecture and grandeur (and sometimes their simplicity) but came to appreciate the attempts of the people to build and adorn a worthy house of God here on earth. The many statues, paintings and frescoes tell scripture stories and the history of the city to a people who at the time could neither read nor write themselves.

The centre for the World Youth Day celebrations was the Polish city of Krakow, where St John Paul II was Cardinal before his election as Pope. The city was transformed by the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, including several thousand from Australia. For four days, we gathered to be inspired by catechesis on the theme of God's mercy, to celebrate Mass together and the Stations of the Cross. The culmination was the pilgrimage walk out of the city to spend the night in vigil awaiting the Papal Mass attended by over two million people. For older people, such as my wife and I, the sight of so many fervent and committed young people, including our diocesan representatives, inspired hope in the future of the Church when our own experience is of an ageing congregation. Our time in Poland included visits to John Paul II’s birthplace and churches with special significance.

One particular experience which stands out from the rest was our visit to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Despite the passage of 70 years since its closure, the camp remains a sanctuary and sacred graveyard reflecting the worst of human cruelty and suffering. One could not but be touched and sense the sacred as we moved slowly through the camp and reflected, that night, on its impact.

Overall, the pilgrimage was a wonderful experience. We were impressed with the openness of our fellow pilgrims and observed many a transformation as they too, reflected on their journey. We earnestly hope, that in some small way, our example and presence may have contributed to the enjoyment and growth of those with whom we travelled. Our thanks to those who co-ordinated our pilgrimage and prepared us so well for this experience.

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