Darling Harbor is still tonight compared with the noisy, cheerful sounds of the crowds that filled the area throughout this past week. You can still see the occasional cluster of pilgrims walking about, the empty medical and food tents, and the light and stage set-ups leftover from concerts, but it’s nothing like a day or two ago. I’m sure Randwick Racecourse looks even more barren, and I have that withdrawal feeling you get when your days have been filled with one, all-consuming thing and suddenly it’s gone.
But even though there are far fewer pilgrims walking around with flags, wearing their bright orange, red and yellow World Youth Day backpacks and chanting “Benedicto,” I think those now-scattering pilgrims have taken with them the spirit and encouragement that WYD and Pope Benedict XVI strove to instill in them this past week.
If sore feet are any indicator of the World Youth Day effect, than it’s certainly impacted me. Most of my Hawaii pilgrim group left at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning to walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge to the Domain, where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsored a Mass and gathering for all U.S. pilgrims. I met them there and we and other dioceses got to “claim” our bishops at the end of Mass for a quick chat. Then we were on the move. We made the pilgrim walk to Randwick Racecourse by about 2 p.m., most of us lugging sleeping bags, mats and warm clothes for our outdoor sleepover, and with aching feet and backs found our assigned camp-out spot.
The pre-Vigil concerts, particularly the Matt Maher Band (I’ve still got “Your Grace Is Enough” stuck in my head), got us pumped for the evening. During the vigil with Pope Benedict, the racecourse shone with the light of pilgrims’ candles and their own impassioned hearts. The pilgrims kept up their spirits despite the freezing nighttime weather. I was up between 12 and 4 a.m. and there were groups dancing and singing — some chanting, “Pilgrims wake up!” — and a full adoration and reconciliation tent even at those late hours. Soup and hot chocolate were hot commodities at the food booths and Randwick was a sea of Mylar blankets, sleeping bags and tents.
We woke to a cloudy but warmer day. My group once again was lucky enough to be situated close to the popemobile’s route, this time on the dirt course around Randwick, which it circled twice before heading to the altar for Mass. It was neat to see all the people that came for Mass with Pope Benedict and I talked with two Italian expatriates, Leo and Giuseppe, who had come in particular to Randwick to share in the Catholic unity and see the pope. A highlight of the Mass was seeing on the jumbotron the luminous faces of 24 young people as they were confirmed by the Pope.
When the Holy Father announced that Madrid would host the next World Youth Day in 2011, I thought ahead to three years from now. Where will I be? Will I once again travel to a place that is transformed into the world center for Catholic youth for one unforgettable week? While I don’t know the answer to that, I do know that I feel ever so blessed to have participated in World Youth Day as both a journalist and a pilgrim and to have been able to share it with others through this blog.