Final thoughts: in pursuit of a saint

As 200,000 candles lit up Randwick racecourse on Saturday night, it occured to me that it was possible–likely, even–that future Saints were in our midst. Would not Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati have brought a cadre of youth from his hometown? Couldn’t you imagine a younger Blessed Mary McKillop among the joyful religious on the field?

I roamed the Southern Cross Precinct in view of meeting this future generation of WYD patrons. So to conclude my CNS blogging, here are three remarkable individuals who made an impact on me this past weekend.

Meet Craig AshbyIllitterate just seven years ago, this 21-year old Australian Aboriginal credits a parish priest with changing his life. Ashby had begged Fr. PJ O’Neill to send him to an exclusive boarding school (in part because he liked the uniforms). Though far from the outback where he had been raised by his grandmother, he thrived there and is now pursuing a teaching degree from Sydney University.


Ashby hasn’t forgotten those in his former position, however, as he has partnered with corporate donors to raise millions of dollars for boarding school scholarships. For his accomplishments, he was rewarded Saturday with an invitation to lunch with the Holy Father.

Meet Francine Bell“Hey pilgrim!” hollered a woman behind me on Sunday night. Turning around, I immediately recognized her to be Francine Bell, the soulful performer of “Amazing Grace” at Friday’s Stations of the Cross. She had spotted my orange WYD backpack and wanted to talk to a pilgrim from the crowd, as she had been confined all day to the stage area.


As we exchanged stories, I was surprised to learn that Bell was not Catholic, but Seventh Day Adventist. She explained that after seeing the WYD Cross on TV, she asked God whether she should somehow participate in the gathering. Sure enough, she received a call from WYD organizers the very next day. Bell is now thrilled to have witnessed a week of grace for her country.

Meet Anton AntonovDespite being fellow members of the International Liturgy Group, I only met Anton during the Saturday evening vigil. The gruff Russian is one of those men who remind you how easy it is to be a Catholic in North America.


Growing up in war-torn Chechnya, the constant military presence “was like toy soldiers” to a young boy. This innnocence was shattered the day Antonov witnessed a man destroyed by a rocket. For years he recalled the scene in terrible nightmares.

Now living in a safer region, Antonov has found healing for his dreams and, with zeal for Christ, has chosen the path of peace. Still, he speaks of the onoing challenges of the Catholic Church in Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church continues to exert pressure against its expansion.

NOTE: Did you miss some of the enduring images of WYD? You can still catch all the highlights on Salt + Light Television, Canada’s Catholic TV network. Click the ZOOM link to watch daily reports online.

Pope on Sudan: “The country I most want to visit”

Rhoda greeting Pope Benedict XVI (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani)

Rhoda greets Pope Benedict XVI (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani)

As we were tightly packed on the deck of the Sydney 2000, I couldn’t help but be privy to another pilgrim’s poignant moment with the Holy Father.

Representing Sudan, Rhoda is an invited participant in the International Liturgy Group. As such, she was also among the eleven ILG members chosen to meet Pope Benedict XVI as he travelled by boat to Barangaroo on Thursday.

Rhoda didn’t appear nervous as she knelt before him and kissed his ring. Their ensuing conversation laid bare both of their hearts.

“Please visit my country,” Rhoda pleaded. Though this was no doubt a moment of elation, you could tell from her expression that she carried heavy concerns from her homeland.

“Sudan is the country I most want to visit,” was the pontiff’s surprising response. I confirmed these words with Rhoda afterwards.

Again looking into his eyes, her encounter ended as she asked the Holy Father to pray for her nation, to which he replied that he would continue to do so.

Meeting the Holy Father

Pope Benedict's boatacade to the Papal Welcome

Youth join Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney Harbour (Courtesy WYD 2008)

Today I met Pope Benedict XVI. The occasion was the boatacade to the Barangaroo site in Sydney Harbour, where 150,000 pilgrims waited to welcome him to World Youth Day. Some 350,000 others were along the shores en route.

Eleven members of the International Liturgy Group were granted the opportunity to speak with the Pope, each of us received word of this past weekend.  We nervously rehearsed the choreography of the meeting just one hour prior, kneeling before our pontifical body double Chris Valka C.S.B.–a fellow blogger on these pages who happens to have also been the MC and principle organizer of the boatacade.

The small bow deck was so packed with security that I missed my cue, which was the Holy Father waving from the balcony. But when I finally saw his outrstretched arm over the heads of the officers, I managed to squeeze through. I had been randomly selected to be the first.

I knelt and kissed his ring.

“Hello Holy Father!”
“Are you from Australia?”
“No, I’m from Canada. I work for Catholic Television there.”
“What are you following?”
“We’re following you, Your Holiness! I want to thank you for your message to Quebec at the International Eucharistic Congress.”
“Oh! You were there!”
“I remember the huge rainfall.”
“Yes, it was incredible!”

My time was up, so I stood to the side as the next ILG member had her moment. This would not be the end of my encounter, however, as we were surprised to learn that we would stand next to him as the boat continued to Barangaroo.

I’ll never forget his warmth and attention as he waved to pilgrims along the shores, his papal ring glimmered mere inches from my nose. Tomorrow, I’ll share a beautiful encounter he had with a Sudanese woman from our group.

Food and strangers

Sharing a meal with strangers Thomas, Bonnie, Nora, Carol and Annabel

Sharing a meal with Thomas, Bonnie, Nora, Carol and Annabel

At WYD, separation from your group is either an opportunity to make new friends or a dangerous precursor to getting lost, which in turn leads to things like hunger and death.

I know rationally that it’s not so perilous, but I was still hesitant to leave my S+L colleagues and venture into the unknown. They were walking twelve blocks to the “Big Aussie BBQ” and I had work to do in the media centre. I would save time by staying behind to eat the pilgrim food.

Lunch and dinner are served in bags of six meals. So if you’re alone as I was, you need to join another group. This proved much easier than expected, as pilgrims hollered for others to join them. “We’re looking for one more!”

I was invited to eat with the “Antioch Community” youth group from the Sydney suburbs–not very exotic, to be sure, but they were warm and spirited.  I repeated the experiment come dinnertime and joined forces with two pilgrims from Orange County, California, plus three others from Perth, Australia. The Perth youth belonged to the massive contingent from Our Lady of the Mission parish. Not only did the church bring 150 participants, but they also fundraised on behalf of youth from India and East Timor.

When I’ve tried more of the local specialties I’ll report on whether the WYD food is hit or miss. Thus far they’ve exceeded expectations, provided you understand the limitations of cooking Tikki Masala for 200,000.

Feeling like the Pope

Your author holds the Canadian flag before the Opening Mass procession

Your author holds the Canadian flag before the Opening Mass procession

“So this is what it feels like to be the Pope,” exclaimed Eden d’Souza, an International Liturgy Group leader who participated in the WYD Opening Mass procession. Carrying the Canadian flag, I too shared the experience of walking through the gate into the roaring crowd. I can tell you that it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.

Surrounded by Catholics from every nation, I remembered how events like these cannot be adequately conveyed through statistics or even images. World Youth Day is a feeling. So as I walked towards the stage, I was delighted to see many maple leaf-adorned compatriots sharing in that emotion. A number of Canadian Bishops made the journey, as well.

Looking back on WYD 2002, I confess that I felt uncomfortable with the great number of flags. I just wasn’t sure about the place of nationalist sentiments in a religious event. It all seemed better suited to the Olympics.

Yet when I marched through the 100,000 present at Barangaroo, I realized that they weren’t actually cheering for their country, per se. Flags excite pilgrims because they want everyone to know that they are represented in this universal church. Without the symbols, onlookers might not see how this gathering has brought the world together. They also might not recognize the efforts of those who arrived despite difficult circumstances, such as the Sudanese man I met this morning.

“Australia welcomes you,” reassures PM

Australian PM Kevin Rudd (Courtesy Getty Images)

“Christianity has been an overwhelming force for good in the world.”

With those words by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, I’m sure many WYD participants felt a lot more welcome in this country.

It’s not that locals have been unfriendly. To the contrary, in my experience they are eager to assist lost visitors and have only expressed positive sentiments about the event. Regardless, I’ve spoken to many Catholics who perceive the Australian news media as having fixated on cheap, negative coverage. As this reputation has spread, WYD participants are left wondering whether Sydney residents share the cynicism.

So it was with relief that the PM appeared in person to extend not only his welcome but to give an emphatic defense of the place of faith in Australian society.

“Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century,” said Rudd. “I say they are wrong. Some say that faith is the enemy of reason, I say, also they are wrong.” Rudd also congratulated the pilgrims for being promoting a peaceful cause, when so often youth travel to other countries for the purpose of war.

Now that WYD is underway, it must be said the newspaper coverage seems more reflective of the excitement the event is bringing to the city. Further, as the conversation broadens, it now appears that “sneering secularists” are not above media scrutiny, either.

Opening Mass Previewed

Cardinal George Pell joined the dress rehearsal at the Barangaroo site today. I was initially surprised to see Sydney’s Archbishop present for a run through, but then I began to understand just how painstakingly the Opening Mass needed to be practiced. During World Youth Days, the massive liturgies seem to flow so effortlessly that you forget that each step had been carefully choreographed.

As no media is invited to the rehearsals, this is your exclusive preview of Tuesday’s event. WYD 2008 begins with an extraordinary aboriginal musical number that manages to juxtapose the digeridoo with techno beats, all the while telling the story of Australia. Though the Aussie winter resembles spring in the Northern U.S. or Canada, spare a thought for the dancers, who will no doubt be cold in their traditional dress.

Then Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, will be addressing the hundreds of thousands present.I’d tell you the contents of his three minute speech, but this afternoon he was represented by a silent stand in. So too was Guy Sebastian, one of the performers and writers of the WYD theme song “Receive the Power”. Word is that he will be present to sing at the Opening Mass.


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