This summer I was incredibly blessed to have been able to travel to Sydney, Australia, for the celebration of the 23rd International World Youth Day. I traveled as a member of the St. Michael’s College World Youth Day group from Toronto, Canada, but I assure you that I also traveled as a native son and conscious member of the Diocese of Rochester. After reading the August issue of the Catholic Courier, and reading its World Youth Day coverage, I thought a firsthand encounter from a member of the diocese might help to bring the reality of World Youth Day a bit closer to home.
While I was excited to attend World Youth Day in Australia, the experience itself shattered all of my expectations. The country is stunning: the parks and architecture in Sydney, the paradisal beaches near Brisbane, the vibrant assortment of birds and wildlife. And then there were the crowds. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the Earth pulsed through the Sydney streets during the festivities. To see the undulating sea of people and flags wash over the city was breathtaking.
However, something else was more shocking and awe-inspiring than the beauty of Australia and the number and diversity of the pilgrims:
The sheer joy throughout the event was palpable; you could feel it in the air, taste it, hear it, smell it and see it on the faces of everyone present. It also was contagious! Confronted by the pilgrims’ jubilance, the swarms of regular citizens of Sydney (called “Sydneysiders”) responded with warm smiles and occasionally helped with directions, despite the rush of city living.
Where did this joy come from? For some Sydneysiders the answers were plain to see: They’ve traveled to an exciting, new place; they’re with other young people; “they are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). But the answer, of course, lies much deeper. Whether we were conscious of it or not, Jesus was the reason we were together. It was his Holy Spirit, God’s pure gift of himself, which filled us with such joy.
And in the midst of the experience of World Youth Day, the focus on the Holy Spirit fell perfectly into place. Australia is called “The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.” Pope Benedict XVI’s theme for the event was the promise of Jesus to his disciples before his ascension to the Father: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The catechesis and homilies that we heard all focused on the Holy Spirit: Who is he? What does he do? What is this “power” that he gives to us? Indeed, the pope, cardinals and bishops — our fellow pilgrims — all prayed that this World Youth Day would be experienced as a new upper room, a new Pentecost.
In the midst of a nationwide drop in church attendance, parish closures and a shortage of priests, what can this event teach the world? What can it teach the Diocese of Rochester?
First of all, the Spirit is indeed alive! He is working in the hearts of this young generation to “renew the face of the Earth” (Ps 104:30). The tangible joy of World Youth Day ought to be a beacon of hope for the church at large. We young people seek and desire the truth, and when we encounter Christ, we can take joy in the challenges that genuine Christian discipleship entails.
Second, we must all — old or young — emulate this “spirit of youth” which World Youth Day so clearly displays. We should not be afraid to seek answers to the deep, ultimate questions of our lives. We should not be afraid to turn to God in prayer, and to ask him for what we so desperately seek. And we should not be afraid to accept Christ, and anything he asks of us, when we encounter him. As Pope Benedict exhorted us shortly after his election, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life” (April 24, 2005).
Come, Holy Spirit!
Rupik is a recent graduate of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. This month he will begin his year of discernment for the diocesan priesthood at Becket Hall in Rochester.