LATE on Sunday, July 21, Angus Jones walked beneath a clear Rio de Janeiro sky that governed an unusually quiet Copacabana beach.
Angus sunk his feet in the soft, white sand, gazing up at the roaring sea. Excitement rushed over him as he saw the brilliant white cross, placed squarely above the large stage sitting at the head of the beach.
He could hear God say, “Are you ready for this, Gus?” He didn’t even need to answer. He was ready.
He had been ready since he was, when he asked his parents to be baptised a Catholic. At the time, it was simply a request to be like his older brothers, who were baptised as Catholics soon after birth.
“It was a bit of a jealousy thing, where I thought, ‘Why can’t I be Catholic?’” Angus said.
Having been baptised a Catholic, Angus attended a Catholic high school, but said his faith journey began when he was 19.
His best friend invited him to a mission trip in northwest Fiji to help rebuild a boarding school destroyed by a hurricane. He agreed to go, wanting to help build things with his bare hands and meet the locals.
“I’m from a family of three paramedics and one policeman. God graced us with a caring compassionate nature,” he said. But he was warned that the trip would also involve prayer – and a lot of it.
“I thought, How much different could it be to high school?” he said. “I had expectations that we’d labour everyday and do the occasional Sunday prayer. But it was not like that at all.”
Mornings began at 5.30am, promptly followed by prayer and Mass at 6am, and on top of hard work, unceasing prayers and meditations throughout the day.
Angus admitted to the occasional weep of tiredness and confusion about why the schedule repeated day after day . But mostly, he couldn’t believe that around 40 young, confident, outgoing boys had such strong Catholic faith.
“These were outgoing lads, much like myself, who just seemed to have the world in their hands, and were the happiest guys in the world,” he said. “I would ask so many questions – what does this mean, why do we do that, why do we say so many Hail Marys, why is Mass so long, why do we kneel, why do we stand.
“It was in Fiji where I had my first actual confession. I had been receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist without realising you had to be in the state of Grace to receive it, and I was receiving it unworthily. The priest gave me spiritual guidance with the penance and said my penance was not to receive the sacrament if I was unworthy. It was just an eye-opening thing.
“To this day, I’ve never received outside the state of grace, and it’s probably thing I’m most proud about.
“I learnt so much from that trip. You’d come back home just exhausted, cause you worked all day in the sun, so you’re looking pretty good, but before you even go to sleep you finish with prayer.
“There’s something about prayer and the quiet time that kept you going, just burning up a little bit of fuel.
“The next morning, you woke up completely refreshed. You still had sores and wounds from yesterday, but you were ready to go, even on minimal sleep.
“It was the Spirit driving me to keep on with my work.”
When the trip ended, Angus returned to Australia “invigorated”. But Fiji was not enough to sustain him and he slowly slipped away from God.
“I became a bit selfish – it was all me, me me, rather than a life of giving,” he said. “I’m always just a happy person, but I think, the times when I would get sad, it would be a bit more than usual. It’s because I knew it was wrong. “
When it came to happiness, Fiji had set the benchmark.
“I found something there and I was intertwined with God, so tightly,” he said. “But then I became just little piece of string, starting to frazzle out, getting a little bit loose.”
A qualified paramedic, Angus’ work days are anywhere between 12 to 14-hour shifts, four times a week.
“It’s a draining job,” he said. “Work gets so busy, and is so physically exhausted, so hard, so challenging.
“The reason why I was getting so drained is I wasn’t praying. I just expected God to make it fine everyday, to be rejuvenated everyday, without the prayer.”
It was at a Sunday Mass six months before World Youth Day when Angus made the decision to bring prayer, and God, back into his life.
“I knew I needed something to pick it up, but I couldn’t get myself out of the groove,” he said. “I went to a weekend Mass, after having a big weekend, and was just sitting there, celebrating Mass, feeling a little better, like I was getting back on the bandwagon. I looked at the newsletter and saw there was a group going to World Youth Day.
After the first information session, Angus took out a loan to pay off the trip to Chile and Rio.
“I was sold,” he said. “I knew I was going to find answers at World Youth Day.”
Before he knew it, he was on holidays and headed to Brisbane airport for a 30-hour trip to Santiago, Chile.
“I remember rocking up to the airport, seeing Teresa (fellow pilgrim) wearing a backpack three times her size, with the biggest smile on her face,” he said. “I could tell it was something pretty special.”
Angus said the first week in Chile was “the key to open up my heart”.
“It was closed for so long by normal life, so that was the unlocking part of the World Youth Day experience,” he said. “We were given the experience to meet everyone, get immersed in the Chilean culture, and just open up our hearts.
“When you greet the locals, you don’t shake their hands – you hug ’em, you kiss ’em, and you tell ’em you love them. You’re not just doing this with one or two people, but 20 people. It was a bit cleansing, healing the wounds I hadn’t fully healed just yet.
“Chile is a fairly poor country, and when you’re there, you realise how ungrateful you can be at times. You think your issues are so tough, but they’re the smallest things compared with what these people deal with.”
While Chile helped Angus to unlock his heart, it was Rio that opened it up completely.
“The best thing about World Youth Day, it opened myself up. What I experienced at World Youth Day was pure love,” he said. “In Fiji I gained a base knowledge of the faith, and World Youth Day was a massive fine-tuning and another layer of solid base rock. Fiji might have been the laying down the rock, but WYD was the cement to make it even more solid.”
Millions of young Catholics were expected to crowd Copacabana beach during WYD. The night Angus arrived, it was just him, some of “the boys” from the Queensland WYD group, and a handful of South Americans, singing and dancing to an acoustic guitar.
Angus said he felt “set apart from the world”. And this time, he’s determined to keep his focus on God.
“A few of my resolutions are more adoration, because that’s God then and there, to pray daily, read scripture more,” he said.
Angus has also decided to enter medical school to become a doctor in rural Australia.
“It’s so nice to have this new vision, this new goal to strive for,” he said. “God’s saying, ‘You’ve had your fun now, let’s do some work’.”