PILGRIMS who attended World Youth Day in Panama have returned cherishing the moment of sharing with hundreds of thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the globe and, for some, it proved a joyful turning point and a renewal of faith.
“It was so great to see that no matter where you go you’ll always be welcomed by God’s love,” Brisbane Australian Catholic University student Cecilia Bub said.
WYD 2019 proved a joyful experience for Miss Bub, travelling through Central America as a pilgrim, visiting churches and shrines, including the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and sharing everyday life while staying with Catholic families, including celebration of the Eucharist together.
“For me, you notice that people in other countries have the problems that we do, and they have this faith they can turn to, just like us,” she said.
Among hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, Miss Bub, a member of Brisbane’s Neocatechumenal Way communities, was part of a small contingent of Australians chosen to celebrate the Mass on a stage close to Pope Francis.
“That was an unexpected blessing … you could see everyone’s reverence (in the presence of the Pope),” she said.
Miss Bub also said there was “joy amongst my close friends” when one of her fellow pilgrims made a spontaneous vocational decision to join the priesthood.
Rita Thetadig, co-ordinator of a 15-member pilgrim group from Brisbane’s Samoan Catholic Youth International, described WYD as a powerful, life-changing event.
“It really touched the pilgrims and enforced their belief of having Christ in their lives,” she said, after hearing pilgrims share their experiences in the Banyo-Nundah parish.
“To have the perspective of seeing so many young people standing for that – it has given them a personal commitment to say yes to the call of Christ.”
Ipswich Catholic community’s Lauren Cocks helped lead a group of nine to Panama and said some of the first-time pilgrims were “blown away” seeing they were part of a large, global Catholic community.
“Other pilgrims were impressed when Pope Francis proposed young Catholics show a better truth to the world through their own example,” she said.
It was in the presence of a huge WYD crowd assembled at Panama City’s John Paul II Field that Australian Catholic University student Monica Pazniewski felt the presence of God.
“The highlight of the event for me was the vigil celebrated by the Pope at the sleep-out. Under the stars, kneeling down in Adoration of the Eucharist, 700,000 people were still and knew that God was there,” Ms Pazniewski, a third-year Bachelor of Physiotherapy student from Sydney, said.
“To be honest, I had no intention of going to World Youth Day – I didn’t think I needed it.
“But sometimes God calls you and paves a way for you when you least expect it.”
Ms Pazniewski had never been to the Americas before and was feeling both nervous and excited.
She was dreading the long flight but went to Mass several days before travelling – the reading happened to be about “taking courage”.
“In the homily, the priest said the Bible tells us to take courage about 400 times – that’s more than one for every day of the year,” she said.
“This gave me a real sense of peace, knowing that God is looking out for me enough that He would allow me to hear that reading right before I left – it was perfect timing.”
Arriving in Panama, where the population is more than 80 per cent Catholic, Ms Pazniewski said it felt like the whole country was so excited to have the pilgrims arrive that people would beep “hello” to them from their cars as they passed by.
“Seeing hundreds and thousands of young Catholics was incredibly inspiring,” she said.
“It is easy to feel alone in a secular world where there is hatred, violence and a lack of respect for human life.
“You feel alive every second at World Youth Day.
“The joy and energy is uncontainable and suddenly the world’s problems seem to dwindle.”
High school religious education teacher Igor Pletikosa vividly remembers his brief contact with Pope Francis as one of the highlights of attending World Youth Day.
Mr Pletikosa, from Mt Carmel Catholic College, Varroville, in Wollongong diocese, said the experience was not only a journey of faith, but a journey of coming to better know himself, and his relationship with God and others.
“Although at times it was physically demanding, I felt that even through the challenging moments, God was present and without a doubt the Spirit was speaking to us,” he said.
Mr Pletikosa was the official Australian flag bearer during the Vigil Mass with Pope Francis.
“As I yelled out ‘Papa Francisco’, he looked up and acknowledged me with a wave and eye contact,” he said.
“This is a memory I will forever cherish.”
Mr Pletikosa said experiencing that multitude of people in communal silence was awe-inspiring.
“Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament at the Vigil had a profound impact on me,” he said.