World Youth Day 2008

A chronicle of a historic week in Sydney.

In the cool darkness of an Australian July winter’s night, under a clear sky marked with stars of the Southern Cross, Pope Benedict looked upon the 235,000 candle-bearing young persons gathered with him at the Randwick Racecourse and concluded the evening vigil for the 23rd World Youth Day by saying, “You have gathered as young adults with the successor of Peter. I am filled with deep joy to be with you. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: he is the artisan of God’s works.” He then exposed the Blessed Sacrament and joined the young faithful for a period of Eucharistic adoration.

The Pope’s deep joy and his constant invocation of the Holy Spirit were the abiding experiences of those who gathered in Sydney, Australia in July for World Youth Day 2008. It seemed as if the Pope never stopped smiling for the week he was in Australia, and in his encounters with the pilgrims he never veered far from the theme he had selected for the triennial gathering of young Catholics from around the globe—quoting from the Acts of the Apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses.”

David Endres, 29, a deacon for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio who will be ordained a priest in 2009, refl ected the sentiments of many at World Youth Day Sydney. “A particularly moving moment for me occurred during the vigil with the Holy Father when he exposed the Blessed Sacrament,” Endres said. “Knowing that hundreds of thousands of young people were adoring Our Lord with the Holy Father was overwhelming. My admiration for the Pope grows every time I see him and hear his voice—a voice that seems confident, yet even more humble and joyful.”

Sydney was the second World Youth Day of Pope Benedict’s pontifi cate; the first was Cologne in 2005. It was the farthest journey he has made since his election in 2005.

He left Rome on Saturday, July 12,traveling by plane for nearly 20 hours and arriving “Down Under” the next day, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 13.

During the long flight the Pope told the reporters traveling with him, “I am going to Australia with feelings of great joy.” He then responded in detail to five questions on the decline of religion in Australia, global climate change, relations with the Anglican Communion, and the purpose of World Youth Day pilgrimages. He also addressed the sexual abuse of minors by clergy that had occurred in Australia in recent decades, giving an indication that an apology would be offered during his Australian stay.

Upon his arrival the Pope went to rest at an Opus Dei retreat facility, Kenthurst Study Centre, on the outskirts of Sydney. While there he celebrated Mass, walked amidst the Australian bush, and welcomed his first locals—koala bears, kangaroos, and various reptiles that had been brought to him from the Tarangoo Zoo near Sydney.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of WYD pilgrims from 177 nations took to the streets, parks, churches, schools, subways, trains, and ferry boats of Sydney in a fantastic array of colorful pilgrim wear, carrying the omnipresent offi cial orange, yellow, and red pilgrim backpacks. They waved their national flags and hailed each other on the street corners of downtown Sydney, cheering together, “BENEDETTO, BENEDETTO” as they collectively anticipated their meeting with the Pope in just a few days.

Many Sydneysiders, as the locals are called, opened their homes to tens of thousands of pilgrims, but in the weeks leading up to World Youth Day
among other locals—especially the media— there had been some trepidation, misgivings, even downright hostility to the idea of all these young people invading their secular city for some sort of Catholic religious revival.

By week’s end the anti-ecclesial media establishment was saying it was one of the nicest weeks in Sydney’s history, exceeding even the exuberance of the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games. A local bus driver wrote a newspaper column saying that the love the young people showed him each day as they traveled to their various sites had reduced him to tears and that it was the single best week in his career as a transit worker. The hard work of Cardinal George Pell, Sydney’s archbishop, his auxiliary bishop and the event’s coordinator, Anthony Fisher, O.P., and their team of thousands of workers and volunteers showed itself in the well-organized arrangements that made Sydney extremely hospitable to pilgrims.

Father William Prospero, S.J., a veteran of four World Youth Day pilgrimages, said it was the best one he had ever attended. “World Youth Day 2008 was by far the most organized,” he said. “There was accessible and plentiful food, and organized and efficient transportation and volunteers who knew where things were made it all happen smoothly.”


But Prospero, who led a group of college students from Central Michigan State University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, puts the emphasis on the spiritual elements of World Youth Day. “The pilgrimage was grace ‘concentrate’ from the beginning, a parable for the whole Christian life. It was truly a school of holiness from which everyone can learn to live. Mass and confessions were celebrated daily. All our homilies had to do with pilgrimage, the journey of faith together toward Jesus,” Prospero said.

Bishop Fisher was on record as saying he hoped that the events in Sydney would inspire 100,000 lapsed Catholics their faith.

Cardinal Pell opened the offi cial World Youth Day program with a Mass at the former docks of Sydney, renamed “Barangaroo,” a term borrowed from the language of the Aboriginal people of Australia referring to a sacred place. Almost all the events throughout the week began with a contribution of music, dance, or ritual welcoming ceremonies taken from the indigenous cultures of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Island Strait peoples.

To the tens of thousands of young pilgrims, Cardinal Pell said in his energetic and forthright manner, “Many of you have traveled such a long way that you may believe that you have arrived, indeed, at the ends of the earth! If so, that’s good, you have.”

He concluded his homily by advising them, “Don’t spend your life sitting on the fence, keeping your options open, because only commitments bring fulfillment. Happiness comes from meeting our obligations, doing our duty, especially in small matters and regularly, so we can rise to meet the harder challenges. Many have found their life’s calling at World Youth Days.”

To assist in the discernment of vocations there was an enormous vocation fair at the Sydney Convention Centre throughout the week. Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity mounted a museum-quality display on the life of their foundress that overlooked hundreds of booths featuring information on religious orders, lay associations, diocesan seminaries, and various apostolates in the Church. The exhibition hall was packed with pilgrims from morning to night and the energy and excitement within the room was palpable.

A new WYD feature was the round-the-clock presence of a group of priests available for spiritual direction in one quiet corner of the convention center. World Youth Days have always been centers of intense Eucharistic adoration and confession and these were also offered on a grand scale near the vocation fair.

Sister Mary Emily, O.P., vocation director of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee, said interest at her booth was non-stop for four straight days. She and her fellow Dominican sisters were able to pass out 5,000 home-made rosaries in packets that included information about their order.

The Dominican booth was adjacent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ colorful and interactive display on the diocesan priesthood, organized by Father David L. Toups, associate director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations. The booth featured seven US seminarians along with various bishops, including Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh and Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, who spoke with pilgrims about the call to the priesthood.

“The USCCB takes the World Youth Day opportunity to speak about vocations very seriously,” Father Toups said, noting that 30 percent of seminarians say a “World Youth Day experience… was the pivotal moment for them entering in the seminary.”

The Nashville Dominican sisters, who had worked in the administrative offices of World Youth Day during the preparations for the events, announced that they would be stationing four of their sisters in Sydney to continue their witness of consecrated life in Australia.

The Church in Australia has experienced a dearth of vocations in its recent history. Perhaps indicative of the problem was an encounter by a pilgrim priest who reported undergoing an inquisition near the Sydney cathedral by a middle-aged Australian woman who demanded to know to why he was dressed in his clerical shirt. When the priest informed the woman that she was going to be seeing quite a few priests and nuns dressed in their religious habits during World Youth Day celebrations, she protested that she herself was a nun and she had no intention of changing what she was wearing, which included blue jeans, golden earrings, and a red cardigan sweater.


The Pope’s formal pastoral activities began on Thursday, July 17 with a welcome ceremony at Admiralty House, the historic Sydney residence where heads of state are traditionally greeted. The Australian federal government and the state government of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, contributed millions of dollars and manpower toward the operations of World Youth Day. Although the lowest-attended World Youth Day in the event’s 23-year history, the six-day papal visit and youth festival cost $150 million to stage. The Australian government provided millions of dollars toward the total costs. Pilgrims paid anywhere between $50 to $395 in registration fees, depending on what country they came from, plus airfare, which from the US ran most pilgrims approximately $1,600.

The Pope thanked the governments for their assistance and told the offi cials that he hoped “through the Spirit’s action, the young people gathered here for World Youth Day may have the courage to become saints! That is what the world needs more than anything else.”

After that the Pope went to pray at the tomb of Australia’s one “near saint”—Blessed Mary MacKillop. As a young woman in 19th-century Australia, she co-founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, an order dedicated to the education of the young and care of the poor. She is buried at her order’s motherhouse in North Sydney, across the bay from the Sydney Opera House. A visit to venerate her remains became part of the program for many pilgrims, even though they were charged five Australian dollars to visit Blessed Mary’s tomb.

The Australian media expressed great disappointment that the Pope did not make an offi cial saint of Blessed Mary during his Sydney stay. They seemed to have expected him to unroll a parchment and announce her imminent canonization while visiting her burial site.

The Pope, however, warmly greeted the Sisters of St. Joseph congregation, most of them quite elderly, and promised to pursue Blessed Mary’s cause when he returned to the Vatican.

But first he had an important boat trip to make through the waterways of Sydney to East Darling Harbor, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims awaited him at Barangaroo. The shoreline was packed with cheering Sydneysiders and pilgrims who hailed the Pope during his 45-minute cruise aboard the ship Sydney 2000. The Pope’s boat was surrounded by other watercraft in what was dubbed a “boat-a-cade.”

On board, his fellow passengers included World Youth Day pilgrims from every continent dressed in their native costumes who conversed with the Pope and took in the splendid sights with him under a cloudless sky and 70-degree weather. This was the first real chance that most Australians had to see the Pope, and he left a favorable impression. As Andrew Rabel, a veteran Australian Catholic journalist, asked, “Who could ever forget him talking casually to the young people on the cruiser, with the city of Sydney as the backdrop, in that beautiful afternoon sunshine on Sydney Harbor?”

As Pope Benedict disembarked from his ship there came a welcoming roar from the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. These were the young people who had saved money for years, traveled for days, and slept on cold gymnasium floors for nights in order to be there to welcome the Holy Father to Sydney’s World Youth Day. The vibrant, strong, healthy, and holy Pontiff received their love and adulation with humility and graciousness, but as a good teacher wasted no time and soon convened one of the biggest classes he had ever taught.

He led the pilgrims in what was effectively a thorough examination of conscience to mark the start of their time together. Starting with refl ections on God’s creation, Pope Benedict described the views of the earth that he observed during his long airplane trip, calling them “glimpses of the Genesis creation story.” He described “the sparkle of the Mediterranean, the grandeur of the North African desert, the lushness of Asia’s forestation, the vastness of the Pacifi c Ocean, and the majestic splendor of Australia’s natural beauty.”

He then compared the young people before him to those of the early Christian community, who “moved forward to oppose the perversity in the culture around them.” He highlighted the 19 missionaries who left Europe for Australia, “the great majority of whom were young—some still in their late teens—and when they bade farewell to their parents, brothers and sisters, and friends, they knew they were unlikely ever to return home. Their whole lives were a selfless Christian witness.”

The Pope then meditated on the joy and gratitude that can fill the young when they experience the innate goodness of the human person, “perhaps glimpsed in the gesture of a little child or an adult’s readiness to forgive.”

But he did not hold back from addressing the scars and wounds that humanity also inflicts, citing as examples the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation found in the media. The Pope paused and pondered aloud to the hushed and massive assembly. “I ask myself, could anyone standing face-to-face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation ‘explain’ that these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, are considered merely ‘entertainment’?”

Following the welcome ceremony the Pope began a traditional motorcade throughout the streets of downtown Sydney. Businesses let their workers out early to see the Pope drive by. Earlier in the day the Pope had moved his residence from the country to the city. He was now staying at the cardinal’s residence at St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of Sydney.

On Friday, July 18 the Pope met with more government officials and then held ecumenical and interfaith gatherings that are part of every papal pilgrimage. The Pope took time out to have a meal with a group of young pilgrims at the lunch hour.

He then met with a group of disadvantaged young people from the drug rehabilitation program “Alive” at an event hosted at Sacred Heart Church, in what he later described as a very moving experience for him. Using language from the computer age, the Pope told them, “Loving is what we are programmed to do…the program that is hard-wired into every human person, if only we had the wisdom and generosity to live by it.”

In another nod to the digital era, each day of the week the Pope sent a text message to pilgrims’ cell phones. For example, on Friday of that week, the Pope wrote, “The Spirit impels us 4ward 2wards others; the fi re of his love makes us missionaries of God’s charity. CU tomorrow night BXVI,” referring to the Saturday night vigil.


The culminating event for Friday was the Way of the Cross, which the Pope initiated with a prayer from the steps of the cathedral. The Way, which had dozens of local Catholics taking on roles from the Passion narrative, processed for three hours along the city’s major streets to the principal monuments of Sydney. The procession stopped at the Royal Botanical Gardens, where Jesus’ Agony in the Garden was depicted, then to the classically columned National Art Gallery, where Jesus’ exchange with Pontius Pilate was recreated, and then on to the grounds of the Sydney Opera House, where the scourging and falls of Christ were relived. The streets and venues were packed with observers as the actor playing Christ dragged his life-sized cross through town. There was an estimated television audience of 500 million viewers, including the Pope, who watched from the cathedral crypt.

The next morning, Saturday, July 19, the Pope was back at the cathedral to dedicate a new altar that had been prepared for installation at World Youth Day. The white Italian marble altar resembled a tomb, with a sculpted image of Christ from the Shroud of Turin mounted within it. It was at this Mass that the Pope offered his apologies to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

But the main purpose of the gathering was to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass with seminarians and religious sisters and brothers in formation. The Pope advised them, “Make the daily celebration of the Eucharist the center of your life…in this way, dear young seminarians and religious, you yourselves will become living altars where Christ’s sacrificial love is made present as an inspiration and a source of spiritual nourishment to everyone you meet.”

After the papal Mass the seminarians and religious joined fellow pilgrims in the walk across the Harbor Bridge out to Randwick Racecourse for the evening vigil and final Mass. As darkness fell and cool air filled the racetrack— which had been transformed into a place of pilgrimage and worship— the Pope addressed his faithful young flock. The assembly included nuns from Fiji who were bundled up in hats, gloves, mittens, winter jackets, and sleeping bags to fend off what was for them chilly Australian weather. For others the climate was refreshing, as young men from Ireland played soccer in shorts and t-shirts while awaiting the Pope’s arrival. Father Stan Fortuna, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, entertained the crowd with his religious rap songs, intoning, “Ain’t no party like a Catholic party!”

The Pope arrived, punctual as always, and once again called his “class” to session. The topics for the night were the related themes of the unity of the Catholic Church and the power of the Holy Spirit.

It sometimes seemed that the Pope was speaking to the generation of the 1960s—the parents of the pilgrims’ generation—as much as to the pilgrims themselves, as he warned, “Some today portray their local community as somehow separate from the so-called institutional Church by speaking of the former as flexible and open to the Spirit and the latter as rigid and devoid of the Spirit.”

The Pope said that it is only in God and the Church can we fi nd the unity we seek. “Yes, the Church must grow in unity, must be strengthened in holiness, must be rejuvenated, must be constantly renewed. But according to whose standard?” he asked. And then he gave the answer: “The Holy Spirit’s!”

Various pilgrims from across the world addressed the Pope on how they live their Catholic faith and the highlights and inspirations of their local Catholic communities. The Pope responded, “It is as children of Christ’s light—symbolized by the lit candles you now hold—that we bear witness in our world to the radiance no darkness can overcome.”

He concluded the evening with Eucharistic adoration and Benediction, after which the pilgrims slept outside under the stars. Before he took leave of the vigil, the Pope blessed the pilgrims and prayed in a loud voice, “Tonight, gathered under the beauty of the night sky, our hearts and minds are filled with gratitude to God for the great gift of our Trinitarian faith.”

Holly Georgopolous, 26, from Glenview, Illinois, who was on pilgrimage with the Community of St. John, said it was more the Pope’s example than his words that impressed her at the evening vigil. “Pope Benedict showed us who we really were coming thousands of miles to encounter—Christ in the Eucharist. He showed us that it wasn’t about him—it was about Jesus in the monstrance. Pope Benedict became insignificant for me at that point, in a way, and I think he would be thrilled to know that. Jesus became the reason for my visit,” Georgopolous said. “Benedict simply showed us how to worship the reality of the Eucharist. Truly Emmanuel, God with us!”


The next morning, Sunday, July 20, the Pope was flown by helicopter back to the racetrack. He celebrated the Sunday Mass before a crowd that had swelled to nearly 500,000 people. Highlighting the significance of the Holy Spirit for World Youth Day in Sydney and for the whole Church, the Pope confirmed 14 Australian young adults and 10 others from every other continent during the Mass.

Some of the traditional elements that have come to be expected at Masses with Pope Benedict were apparent: the altar was adorned with six candlesticks and a crucifi x stand, a kneeler was in place for those receiving Holy Communion from the Pope, and the music was more traditional than contemporary. There was, though, an elaborate procession with the Book of the Gospels that included a Pacifi c Islanders choir, men in grass skirts and oars accompanying the Gospel, and a ritual hand-off of the book to a deacon dressed in a traditional shimmering gold dalmatic of the Latin Rite.

Concelebrating priests, numbering about 1,000, were placed as close to the altar as possible so as to have a better sense of celebrating with the Pope, and they were provided with matching red stoles etched with the symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove.

With the joy that marked his whole week at WYD, the Pope united his experience with those of the pilgrims in his concluding remarks, saying, “Here in Australia, this ‘great southland of the Holy Spirit,’ all of us have had an unforgettable experience of the Spirit’s presence and power in the beauty of nature…we have had a vivid experience of the Spirit’s presence and power in the life of the Church. We have seen the Church for what she truly is: the Body of Christ, a living community of love, embracing people of every race, nation, and tongue, of every time and place, in the unity born of our faith in the Risen Lord.”

The morning concluded with the Angelus led by the Pope, who refl ected on the Virgin Mary and her place in salvation history. He said, “As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel’s message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said, yes.”

One of the ways that the WYD pilgrims will stay connected is through a new social networking site,, which stands for “Christ in the Third Millennium.” The Pope’s fi – nal word was to announce that the next World Youth Day will be held during the summer of 2011 in Madrid, Spain. In thanking the Pope for his presence at World Youth Day, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifi cal Council for the Laity, said that World Youth Day has now become a permanent part of the life of the Church, not limited to one papacy or to one generation.

Cardinal Pell was elated with what had transpired in his archdiocese during the week of World Youth Day. He said, “We have just celebrated a wonderful World Youth Day. We have experienced a tsunami of joy and faith. Over 4,000 priests and deacons attended, 420 bishops, 26 cardinals, and there was one Pope!”

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About Father Matthew Gamber 0 Articles
Father Matthew Gamber, S.J. is based in Chicago.