At the time of writing there are 392 days to go to until World Youth Day 2008. That may sound like a long time, but suddenly to me it seems as though it's getting rather close, for several reasons. For one thing, the logistics mean it is time to finalise who is actually coming on pilgrimage from within the deanery. The diocesan youth service needs numbers for flights and accommodation. Three hundred and ninety-two days, and summer coming up, does not leave that much time to mould together from many different parishes a group of young people who will think and pray together and look out for one another. Three hundred and ninety-two days is also not a long time to raise the necessary funds to get us there. Between us we need to raise a little under £75 a day till we leave, for we have a group of 20 people preparing to go from this deanery. That is a great number. We have managed to build on the experience of Cologne in 2005; considering the distance and the cost, it is wonderful that even more people are queuing up to go to Sydney.
Many people, including priests, are cynical about World Youth Day. They see it as a glorified youth festival. My own experience is that it is a powerful pilgrimage of faith. For many of our young people it is as significant as a pilgrimage to Rome or Compostela was to Catholics of centuries ago. It is a great adventure, a journey which provides all kinds of experiences of growth in selfknowledge and friendship, but also a journey whose weightier purpose means that it can never just be enjoyed as a jamboree. It is a joumey towards a deeper encounter with the Lord, of which the outward badges and blisters are not gained without an inward search whose destination is harder to descry. What they what they get from it is to some extent dependent on what we as parents and teachers and pastors tell them to expect, and how we prepare them for it.
For heaven's sake, what could be a more powerful and relevant challenge to place before young people than that of pilgrimage? Aren't we supposed to be a pilgrim Church? How does the metaphor have any meaning at all if actual pilgrimage no longer forms part of our experience?
These World Youth Days are the biggest movements of people on the planet. That alone should tell us something about their inherent worth. Suddenly our young people find themselves surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other young Catholics from all over the world. They experience the universality of the Church in a profound way. They hear the luminous preaching of Pope Benedict and for a while they live in what can only be termed a Catholic bubble. They have daily Mass, catechesis and prayer and everywhere suddenly realise they can combine such things with being full of life and joy.
It is also a mistake to see WYD as simply a youth fest of a few days duration. Cardinal Pell has spoken of the renewal he hopes it will bring to the Church in Australia. He has initiated a programme in all Catholic schools preparing for it.
Here in this deanery the clergy are very positive and supportive of World Youth Day. The experience of Cologne and the powerful testimony the returning pilgrims gave of their experience there has reverberated through the deanery. World Youth Day strikes a chord with parishioners now they know people from among us go and they support them. The perennial cry of "what can we do to encourage the youth?", which is heard at all meetings about the future of our diocese or our parishes, now has an answer.
Our group was originally going to meet once a month for a time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, catechesis and a social time. In fact, from this we are gradually finding reasons to meet more often. On Sunday night we came together to watch a film about John Paul II. There will be fundraising activities and surely a barbecue to prepare us for Australia. The hunger for the spiritual is still there. It is as deep and as real as ever in young people.
WYD can provide an activity round which a group can . coalesce. Since the activity is pilgrimage they know that the challenge involves setting out in faith for somewhere else. Pilgrimage is an explicit acknowledgement of that hunger for God, and the conviction that certain places and times in our lives are propitious to finding him more truly. It is in that conviction that we are counting down the days.