THE first indication I got of World Youth Day’s enormity was when I and 38 other young Queenslanders set off from Brisbane Airport and alighted in Sydney.
Landing in Sydney, in hindsight, was about more than catching a connecting flight to Canada. At Sydney International Airport, I saw just how big World Youth Day was, running into pilgrims from the Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania and the Archdiocese of Sydney.
World Youth Day 2002 took place in Toronto from July 21-28 and involved participation in, celebration of and exhibition of all facets of Catholicism, including praise, worship, catechesis, social service, Way of the Cross and a papal Mass in a muddy park attended by 800,000 people on July 28.
The Queensland group left a week or so before the start of World Youth Day in Toronto, and our flight from Sydney to Canada was literally packed to the hilt with World Youth Day pilgrims. Before I left Brisbane, in my mind, we were all tourists for that week before World Youth Day, definitely not pilgrims!
On the second day after our arrival in Canada, we were asked to repeat the phrase, “I am a pilgrim, not a tourist”, a number of times as part of the Pilgrim’s Prayer.
I was already starting to realise that we weren’t ‘tourists’ in the strictest sense – how many tourists see the majesty of the Canadian Rockies and stop by the side of the road to pray and sing? But I still wasn’t sure of the meaning of ‘pilgrim’ in the context of our journey through Canada.
During the first week, we were physically exhausted from our journey to Canada and from hiking every day, but as we came to know each other both individually and as a group entity, I began to realise what my pilgrimage was all about.
The dictionary defines a pilgrimage as something along the lines of, ‘journey to a holy place’. I only looked that up the other day, but the word has always had certain ‘holy’ connotations in my head.
I have never thought of Canada as a ‘holy’ place. The papal visit at the end of the pilgrimage was the only holy thing I could see happening on this trip.
As we travelled through the province of Quebec, with the journey towards World Youth Day coming to an end, the group banded together quite magically. The intensity of knowing people so intimately but not at all took its toll on a number of pilgrims, and it was then that I realised I had found my holy place. I understood what the Brooke Thomson version of the Queensland pilgrimage was all about.Being a fairly selfish person, it was initially hard to consider other pilgrims, but helping people and just being with people was something that I realised is one of my gifts. It didn’t matter how bad I felt, I realised I could help people feel better about whatever was on their mind, and I realised I have an innate sense of knowing I was needed. This support was reciprocated in my own times of need, amazingly by people who’d known me a week and in many ways knew me better than many of my old friends.
On Saturday, July 27, the pilgrims walked 7.5km through 35 degree Celsius heat to attend a vigil, sleep out in the park, and attend a papal Mass on the Sunday morning. After trekking through the heat and finally arriving at Downsview Park (an ex-military airport), aka the mud pit, we settled down to have a nap and await the arrival of the Pope.
For the first time on a Christian pilgrimage, we were exposed to incredibly un-Christian behaviour.
The Pope’s arrival on Sunday morning, after a couple of hours of thunderstorms, freezing weather and driving rain, saw pilgrims trampling our belongings in order to catch a glimpse of the Pope.
Covered in mud and freezing cold, it was easy to be angry. The Queensland group, instead, sang songs, told jokes and generally entertained the 200-plus people in the vicinity, ensuring that every person had smiled at least once that day.
The pilgrimage that I was on was amazing. It was a journey to understanding myself and understanding people.
The final destination was all about sharing love, giving love and just being loving. The pilgrimage was our journey to Jesus, coming to know Jesus, and living with Jesus.
I have seen Jesus alive over the past few weeks. He’s inside every pilgrim who travelled with me from Queensland to Canada, and back.
I will always remember this phrase that I heard while I was on pilgrimage:
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