Expecting the Unexpected at World Youth Day

Note to our readers: OK, I expected to write a daily blog from World Youth Day '08. Some of you may have actually checked in to see what was going on in Sydney only to be disappointed that the "updates" were not always updated. Well, I wasn't quite able to pull it off. I am a slow writer, and I couldn't keep up the pace. WYD had me too busy. I guess sometimes things just don't turn out like you expect them to. Speaking of which ...

Expecting the unexpected at World Youth Day

So the 23rd World Youth Day has come to a close. Yes, just in case you are keeping score, there have been 23 celebrated thus far. Pope John Paul II actually began them back in 1985, and they were originally held annually in Rome on Palm Sunday until the late Pontiff courageously ventured onto American soil in 1993. That began the cycle of bringing the event to various cities around the world, now every three years, and turning World Youth Day into a 120-hour celebration. So Sydney falls as the eighth location to have hosted this mega event outside of the Eternal City.

That being said, the Pope closed out this edition on Sunday by leading nearly 400,000 pilgrims in the celebration of Holy Mass and finishing what has been regarded as a highly successful affair. Indeed, from a couple of different vantage points, one can hail WYD as a triumphant experience. First, what a marvelous host the city of Sydney has played. From my experience, I can see why they are rated as the 11th most livable city (they used to ranked 7th) - in the World. And some serious congratulations should go to the World Youth Day organizers and volunteers. I was impressed all week by their work. Actually, a couple of WYD veterans have told me that this has been the best run WYD that they have been a part of. The rumor on the street is that WYD '08 was even better organized than the Olympics! I hear someone on the streets of Sydney saying right now, "Can you believe what those Catholics did?'

I am sure that the people of Sydney were surprised that a bunch of religious folk could pull something like this off. I am assuming that they were probably expecting something less from WYD than what they got. Just reading the local papers gives you that sense. Indeed, the city was given something more -way more - than expected. That brings me right to the heart of my experience at my first WYD. That is, I came to expect the unexpected - to anticipate less and see something more unfold before my eyes. There are various incidences that made this real for me. The first is even attending WYD. Six months ago, being in Sydney was not even a thought on my mental radar. I got a call from Father Superior saying they needed someone young to go, and I was - in essence - the only young priest available. So I said "yes" primarily because of the need (also, I thought it would be a nice experience to take a trip down under). So off I went.

Now I knew I was going to be involved in something special because of my experience of being in Washington, D.C., when the Pope visited back in April. Given the impact that Pope Benedict XVI had during his time in America, I was anticipating a similar experience for Australia. But my expectations for the success of WYD were kind of confined to the Pope's visit and the events involving him. Some of that is true. But I was astonished to discover that the impact of WYD isn't just about the Pope.

Let me explain.

There is an atmosphere that is created at WYD where just breathing the air seems to fill one with the Holy Spirit. It is from this that the fruits of love, joy, and peace are made manifest in the pilgrims. Contributing to this atmosphere is not just the Pope, but various festivities that help to fill in all that time during the week when the youth are not meeting with the Pope. There are youth festival events such as a vocations expo, catechesis with the Bishops, inspirational and informative talks, music, and devotional prayer (including adoration and confession).

I knew some of the events scheduled were going to be worth seeing, such as musicians like Fr. Stan Fortuna, Matt Maher, Tony Melendez, and Hillsong United. Speakers such as Jason Evert and Christopher West were "can't miss" as well. To be honest, I wasn't sure what kind of response the other events would get from the youth. I wasn't sure how popular the vocation expo and the catechetical talks were going to be. But each day I was surprised how well attended and significant they were for WYD.

The vocation expo was the main reason why Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, and I went to World Youth Day. The Marians ran a booth there to promote The Divine Mercy message and devotion by handing out information and talking with the people. Based on talking with some people who had experience at previous World Youth Days, I didn't think there was going to be that great of a turnout for it because of the location. But to my pleasant surprise, the place was essentially packed when it opened on Tuesday morning. Though I thought it was going to be just a one-day hit, it was packed for the rest of the week.

Concerning the catechesis, there were more than 250 locations where bishops were assigned to meet with a group of pilgrims on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings, to give a talk and answer questions. I admittedly was skeptical about how well that was going to be received by the youth. Bishops are usually not that dynamic in their speaking. That's not a criticism, but just what I have observed. Thus, I thought the kids were not going to be that engaged - and probably even bored. I wasn't even sure how many kids would attend them. But again, I was taken aback by what I heard and saw. The church I attended for the catechesis was packed full, and I saw the kids really engaged with what the bishops were saying. You could tell there was a real hunger to be fed by their spiritual fathers. An auxiliary bishop from Melbourne, Chris Prowse, actually brought the house down during his time. He was dynamic, funny, and inspirational. He actually got a standing ovation from the gathering, and people were going up to have their picture taken with him afterwards. I got positive feedback as well from the pilgrims about their experience. One person I asked had said that the catechesis was his favorite thing about WYD!

Another thing that went beyond expectations was the Friday Stations of the Cross. In the streets of Sydney, they reenacted some of the events of the Passion of Jesus. It took three hours, and it left people spiritually and emotionally overwhelmed. People were speechless. The media that covered it were in awe at what they had just witnessed as well.

I did want to add one more thing that I was completely not expecting. It was an encounter with someone suffering from cancer. I was eating breakfast Saturday before I was to go downtown to participate in the six-mile pilgrimage walk to Randwick Racecourse where the evening prayer vigil was to take place. An elderly man approached me and asked if I would bless one of his adult children who was sick with cancer. I obliged and recommended the Anointing of the Sick. I ended up spending about an hour with this person, hearing this person's confession and offering some spiritual counsel. This person was really struggling with anger toward God and other people. While talking with this person, I had this real sense that the Lord had brought this person to Sydney and WYD because he wanted to have an encounter with this person. It was the good shepherd seeking one of His lost sheep - just like Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, alluded to during the opening Mass. I can say that the Lord touched this person and brought spiritual healing and possibly physical healing as well. It was profound and moving to be a part of that.

Given all of this, then, I can say that WYD for me was not what I expected. It was more. It was like a festive retreat. Everything that constituted WYD seemed to create an atmosphere where you couldn't but help breathe in the Holy Spirit if your heart was open to it.

So I like it when I am wrong - at least when it concerns something better that is offered or given.

As I reflect back on what took place during those days in Sydney, I find myself thinking, "Why am I surprised by some of things I had witnessed and experienced?" If something is of God, it will always exceed our expectations. Isn't that what St. Paul is trying to tell us concerning heaven when he writes "Eye has not seen nor ear has heard, nor has dawned on man what He has in store for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9). We should not be surprised to be surprised by the power of the Gospel! Yes, people often let us down in life. Because of human weakness, they can't always do what we desire or expect them to do. But, when you think about it, God is the only One we can trust to meet and go beyond our expectations. It is what He came to promise us - that we might have life and have it to the full. That is what I saw and experienced in Sydney. It was God overwhelming the pilgrims and the city with the life of His Spirit.

I had to take a cab one night and the driver asked me what was the purpose of all these people coming together for this event. I told him that, in essence, the purpose was to just be together in the name of Jesus Christ and to allow His Spirit to inspire and unite. When one is open to that, things begin to happen - and happen in ways that we don't imagine.

In essence, that was my experience of WYD '08. What else would expect?

Read other stories from Fr. Mark's World Youth Day '08 adventure.

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