Having never been a fan of large crowds, I closed my eyes and hoped for the best as I made my first pilgrimage to World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne, 2005. At the final Mass at Marienfield with 1.6 million young people from around the world, I sat in complete awe. I knew this had been a significant experience for me, but I was sure that it was a once off. I had no idea of the journey that would unfold from this point on.
I am now preparing for my fifth WYD, having worked with Catholic Youth Ministry for a number of years. As I begin preparations for WYD 2016 in Krakow, Poland, I reflect on exactly why it is I would undertake this experience again.
WYD is exciting. It comes complete with travel, crowds, lights, famous people, famous places and the horrific stories of toilets, queues and food that I am sure you’ve all heard! However, this is merely the shell within which something much more significant takes place.
Recent research suggests that the current generation of young people are more spiritually conscious and take greater ownership of their faith, than previous generations. They desire opportunities to explore the very core of their faith and long for authentic experiences of Christ. It might be hard to believe that within all the excitement and millions of people at WYD, young people find such opportunities.
The scale of a WYD pilgrimage invites young people to set aside significant time and space in their lives to explore their relationship with Christ. The journey is made in the supportive environment of peers, who understand the struggles of being a young person in the Catholic Church today. The feeling of knowing that four million young people gathered on Copacabana Beach with you because of their love of God and his Church is uplifting in an indescribable way.
WYD can give confidence, validation, and energy. It gives freedom to explore and it gives connection. Connection with something bigger than myself, and with something bigger than my being the only young person in my parish. These opportunities allow for intimate connection with God, and relationship with God’s people, in a context like no other. It is a powerful and spirit-filled experience.
It has been a privilege that I’m not sure will be rivalled in my lifetime (but I have been wrong before!) to walk alongside a number of Tasmanian young people on their WYD journey and witness their understanding and growth as members of our faith community. It has left me in no doubt of the significant impact of such an experience and that the Church is in safe hands with this generation of young people. This is why I will be fronting up to the WYD crowds once more in 2016.
By Rachelle Smith, Director of the Office for Youth