The Papal effect.

“Viva il Papa!”

The arrival of the Pope was long awaited for almost everyone in Australia in some way or another for some time. One of the benefits of being an Australian pilgrim was that I got to see the whole WYD phenomenon slowly grow, from media and societal apathy, to ambivalence, to outright opposition, and now to a warm acceptance. But I never expected how wide Australia would open its arms to Pope Benedict XVI.

From behind the stage (I’m a sacristan) I could hear that in the crowd chants would spontaneously break out “Benedicto!” etc, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it looked like on the other side of the hurricane fence. I got a couple of minutes to scamper out between a space in the barricade and go and say hello to a couple of my friends and was taken aback by the amount of people that had jammed themselves into Barangaroo and the wealth of flags that were fluttering in the wind. Looking on to Barangaroo are a line of high rise apartments and office blocks, and people were even pressing themselves onto their windows and stepping out onto balconies to get a good vantage point of the stage. The Pope it seems still has pulling power, even in a country of “moribund” faith!

The technical crew (“techies” we call them, most of whom are not Catholic) and I had by this time struck up quite amiable friendships were all gathered around the big screen TVs, looking at the Pope making his way onto the boat, and as it left the dock something in me jumped for joy, and the rest of them cheered along with me, half amused at my admiration for an old man I don’t know, and half a little excited themselves. For the few days that we had been working together, the techies had started off just on a job, but as we developed friendships, got to talking about what was going on above us. I explained the Mass to some, clarified certain teachings they had misunderstood to others, and now they too were part of the pilgrim crowd in some way.

The reception of the Holy Father doesn’t need narration, it goes without saying that the crowd were elated at his presence. But what surprised everyone was what happened after he left Barangaroo. The Popemobile took a path through the city to his residence at the Cathedral, and for the entirity of the trip the streets were lined with people who wanted to catch a glimpse of the Papa. Lined six deep! Waving flags, waving their hands, waving anything they could find to get his attention. No-one expected that Sydney would give such a welcome, there must have been over a million standing there on the roads. That was what really stunned me, especially since in the lead up to WYD there had been complaints of the inconvenience of the event to the public, claims the Church was up to no good in the world, a couple of guys on the radio had even made fun of Blessed Pier Giorgio’s body.

But now? The whining was forgotten and the Holy Father is a very welcome guest to Sydney.

We’re on a mission (not to Mars).

I am suffering from postevent fatigue, having just returned to my Sydney digs after a long couple of days preparing for the welcome Mass. I’m sure my feet are not there any more because I can’t feel them. There are bits of my body are telling me off for using them too much,  but some other part of me is brimming with energy.

Whenever you attend a big event, you can’t possibly image why people go grey over organising it. Everything seems so simple. Yet someone has possibly shortened their lifespan by a few years getting it to that stage. I am sure that is the case for the organisers of World Youth Day.

Under the stage is a cavernous space sectioned off with black plywood and scaffolding. One light illuminates the sacristy. And from this small room, 150,000 people will be able to receive Communion. Tempers fray as the time for the Mass grows nearer. Things forgotten suddenly spring to mind. Errors become glaringly obvious. Time becomes your enemy. But outside you can hear the songs and the chants and general frivolity that comes with being on pilgrimage en mass.

Everything does end up going smoothly, no matter how disasterously you think you have done, and with the welcome Mass at World Youth Day it was the same.

So it was with great satisfaction that I climbed into my friends’ car as they gave me a lift home. While we were pulled up at the lights, we looked into a bus which was packed to bursting with pilgrims. They hadn’t been working, but they too looked a little deflated. “I bet you’re glad you’re not in that bus,” my friend said.

My mind went back to trips I have made to India, where squeezing yourself into the tiniest voids between passengers is normal. You get sweaty, someone might stand on your toe, but it’s a part of life. Just like it is here. And then I realised why I love being at an event like WYD. When I am in India, I know I am where I am supposed to be, and the small discomforts don’t matter. I was born to work for the poor, so I guess you could call that mission, and it’s that very same call that brings people from all over the world to Sydney. By the very fact they are prepared to show their face at a Catholic event they are willing to show their faith is important to them. 

It struck me that they were on mission as well.

Watching and waiting.

We are in Sydney! I have left all of my loved ones behind to spend some time with strangers from around the world.

It seems that my first post was almost prophetic, as I spoke of being sleep deprived and emerging unkempt from the plane as a sign of pilgrim status. Well it seems any skepticism I had about not being quite a pilgrim in Australia was answered, as our plane was delayed by an hour and a half and we boarded the red eye flight literally rubbing sore and itchy sleep deprived eyes, most of us not even grabbing forty winks on the plane. But that was nothing… another group travelling on the same day had their 10am flight rescheduled for 1 in the morning!

In the mean time, milling around the waiting area, I managed to catch up with some friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while. We talked of old times and some theories we had developed in our own minds about theology and ethics; expectations of what we would get up to at WYD and our plans for after the event was over.

Tick tick tick… time went on, I cast  a semi-bored eye over the other travellers, some who had set up makeshift beds on the floor. I spied two Franciscan friars who looked exactly the same. Yes, they were identical twins, and I was overcome by curiosity as to how they had both come to receive the same vocation. We chatted a little, and it turned out that one of the brothers(x2) was involved in a soup kitchen program in the north of England, just two towns away from my grandmother’s home, and coincidentally, I am going to visit her shortly after this pilgrimage is over. It was soon suggested that I go and lend a hand to the project, a prospect that pleased me no end.  We were called to board, I bid them goodbye, and finally we were in the sky.

At Sydney airport, I stood outside waiting to be picked up so I could go to bed and catch a few zs. The wind whipped up a good chill, and as I turned around to retreat to the warmth of the airport, I saw two little dogs huddled up on a man’s lap (“They’re miniature fox terriers,” he told me, “Milly and Molly.”). Dear little things…the man could tell I wanted to stroke them, and assured me they were gentle, and indeed they greeted me with a couple of sniffs and a lick on the hand. The man and I got to talking, and asked me what I was doing in Sydney. I told him about World Youth Day, and he (a little shyly) admitted to being a lapsed Catholic. He looked at my wrist “aren’t they Buddhist?” he asked, “No, it’s a Rosary,” I replied, and took one off to give him. He seemed reluctant at first, but assured that I had brought them specifically give away, gratefully took it.

What will become of these meetings, I don’t know, but it certainly appears that close encounters are going to be there for the picking over the next few days.

Everyone knows “we’re going to Mass!”

It’s almost time for takeoff, and the excitement of joining the crowd at Sydney has started to make itself seen on the streets of Perth through the pilgrims.

Just image it … Perth is quite a sleepy city … people are generally home by about 6 in the evening and the activity in the city centre is pretty low key to say the least, most people are there to shop anyway, and just want to go about their purchasing with as little fuss as possible. When you catch the train, 90 percent of people have their ipods jammed into their ears, and you can pick out the sounds of guitars and heavy drums from the noise that escapes the earphones. No sounds of “hello” though, unless you’re old friends.

But these last few days you’d be forgiven for being mistaken and thinking that you were somewhere in South America. On the train to the commissioning Mass, the doors opened at the station and 35 Spaniards trooped in, singing loud, telling the commuters through their songs and celebrations that they were on their way to Mass-and pretty happy about it.

People trickled in, the seats filled up and Mass began with the theme song of Cologne WYD “Jesus Christ You Are My Life”. Smiles flickered across the faces of some of the congregation, obviously WYD is somewhat addictive and people have come here for more of the same of what they got three years ago. And then … they walked up the aisle … archbishops, bishops, priests from all over the world … led by my friend (an altar server) who just loves to make incensing into a performance with feats of twirling and smoking.

This is my faith and I love it, and I share it with everyone present. My heart swelled with pride when I saw the Archbishop of Perth up there flanked by his colleagues, all of them there to say the Mass for us young people to send us on our way. And tomorrow, we’ll be there, and probably singing about it as we go.

Spirits high and we’re not even there yet!

It kind of strange being a pilgrim in your own country. Everything’s familiar, but something in your heart is different. You’re looking for different things amongst what you see every day. But there’s no mistaking that the pilgrimage has begun now.

I remember travelling to Cologne three years ago. We were travelling for seemingly endless hours, and finally got off the plane looking dishevelled with crumpled clothes and bed hair, some of us about to have a back spasm from sleeping at an odd angle in the plane chairs. But we loved it! We knew we were on our way. And when Pope Benedict announced at the final Mass that the next WYD was going to be in Sydney, I was at the same time excited that our nation would get a badly needed chance to revive the true faith, and a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t really be a pilgrim.

But I was wrong to feel the latter. Yesterday (Thursday the 10th of July), we had our first event of Days in the Diocese, and again the old pilgrim feeling crept back into my bones. There was all sorts of languages buzzing about my ears. Lots of blonde people walking around (they turned out to be Swiss pilgrims). I could hear the jubilant laughter from a group of Ugandans. The Neocats started up their own shindig in the middle of everything, and people just joined in. Oh yeah … we’re on our way to World Youth Day, and my city gets to welcome people as part of their pilgrim experience. What a gift for us.

There was music, and my own friends were up there entertaining the crowds. Lights flashing all sorts of colours everywhere. People were singing the name of Jesus with such gusto, you couldn’t help but join them! This morning I woke up feeling like someone had glued my eyelids together and needed a few cups of tea to wake me up. But my spirit is flying like a kite with its string cut.

And I’m so glad that I’m an Aussie pilgrim in Australia.

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