Boston pilgrims attend World Youth Day celebrations in Australia

BOSTON-- Several Boston groups, with a total of more than 450 pilgrims, attended the World Youth Day 2008 celebrations that took place in Sydney, Australia, July 15-20.

The largest group, coordinated through the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults left Boston on the morning of July 11 and after layovers in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Honolulu, arrived a world away in Sydney, Australia on July 13.

Gathered together with approximately 500,000 people from more than 160 different countries to celebrate Mass with Pope Benedict XVI July 20, pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Boston felt the power of the universal Church while renewing their own individual faith at the same time.

“The young people have had many wonderful moments in which they have experienced the power of the sacrament of reconciliation, the Holy Father’s love and solicitude for young people, the universality of the Church, dynamic liturgies and fun moments of bonding with fellow pilgrims,” said Father Matthew Williams, director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. Father Williams accompanied 125 teens, college students, young adults, adults and Cardinal Seán O’Malley to the pilgrimage in Sydney.

Despite the layovers, a 14-hour time difference, and a night spent sleeping under the stars in 50-degree weather, Boston pilgrims returned home from World Youth Day 2008 recharged.

“For the most part, everyone adjusted to the time change very well, motivated by an exciting schedule of World Youth Day events,” said Stephen Colella, also of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults.

In addition to the WYD events, Boston pilgrims visited the Sydney Wildlife World, the Sydney Opera House, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bondi Beach, had Mass with Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and 150,000 other pilgrims and received catechesis from Cardinal O’Malley.

Waving American flags, they attended Christian music concerts and festivals and played soccer and conversed with pilgrims from around the world. They were especially touched when they greeted the pope upon his arrival in Australia. “During the Papal Welcoming Ceremony, one young person made eye contact with the Holy Father as he drove by and was deeply touched by that,” said Father Williams.

Approximately 50 people from the Neocatechumenal Way in the Archdiocese of Boston made the pilgrimage to Sydney as well, spending a week in China before flying onto Australia. The group arrived in Hong Kong, where they visited Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop of Hong Kong, at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

They then traveled to Macao, China, and met the bishop there, Bishop Joseph Lai, at his rectory and also visited the elderly in a nursing home run by Spanish order nuns. From there they traveled to mainland China and then on to Shangchuan Island, where St. Francis Xavier preached and died. And then it was on to Australia to join the rest of the pilgrims.

“Having lived in Spain and also the United States, it’s very difficult to find God in the places that I call home,” explained Juan Fernandez, a student at Northeastern University. “Going on this pilgrimage I have had to go very far away to be close to God and so this pilgrimage, for me, has brought me closest to God.”

For nearly 250,000 of the pilgrims in Sydney, the week culminated in an all-night vigil spent sleeping under the stars at the Royal Randwick Racecourse. The pilgrims braved chilly temperatures as they awaited the pope’s arrival for Mass the following day. That evening, with the racecourse in complete darkness, they participated in a candlelit vigil.

“What touched me the most about the trip was the candlelit vigil that we had with the pope on Saturday night and to see how many people from different countries made prayers in their own languages,” said Anna-Natalie Ohman of East Boston.

The closing Mass with the pope was the highlight of the week in Australia for many of the young people. Pope Benedict XVI landed at the racecourse by helicopter and rounded the track greeting cheering pilgrims from his popemobile. Seeing Catholics from around the world brought together because of their faith inspired them and made them feel a closeness to God and each other.

“I really liked celebrating Mass with all the young people from all over the world,” said Veronica Hanley of Framingham. “It’s definitely not something you get to do every day.”

“The Pope’s homily was fantastic. He told us not to be afraid to be Christian and not to be afraid to share our experience with other people,” said Daniel Noé of Stoughton. “The way he spoke was really powerful.”

“My favorite part of this trip has been the reaction of the young people to the pope,” said Denise Dorney of Wakefield, who accompanied the group of young people from the Neocatechumenal Way. “The enthusiasm that they have for this 80-year-old man is incredible.”

WYD, which Pope John Paul II began in 1986 as a way to reach out to young people, is a renewal of the concept of pilgrimage, said Colella. “The renewed concept targets each subjective person and takes them deeper into their own faith and relationship with Christ and his Church,” he said.

“When an individual young person experiences the universal Church, gathered for liturgy around Pope Benedict, they can’t help but be pulled out of their individualism and brought into the faith community.”

For Father Williams, who was moved by the Holy Father’s love for young people, the trip confirmed the need for a New Evangelization, particularly in the way young people are taught about life and love. He said that Pope John Paul II’s “The Theology of the Body” is the “gift that God has given the Church for these times.”

“It is my hope and firm belief that the beautiful authentic witness of our Holy Father, and the many who have served this World Youth Day, have sown many seeds for the Kingdom of God, and with a parish community to support them, these young people will lead the way in building a civilization of love,” said Father Williams.

For more information on the pilgrimage to Australia from Boston pilgrims’ perspectives, visit