By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 7, 2008
The chance of a lifetime to see and hear Pope Benedict XVI left a lasting impression on those who traveled from Atlanta to Sydney, Australia, for World Youth Day 2008. Their faith was strengthened as they celebrated Catholicism in dramatic witness with hundreds of thousands of other young people from nearly 170 countries.
“Meeting other people from all over the world who share in our faith was a totally unifying and spiritual experience … the true Body of Christ together in love and action,” said João “Jay” Cleaver of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
For Cleaver, 33, this was his first World Youth Day pilgrimage, one he made with other young adults from North Georgia led by Dorothy Polchinski, archdiocesan director of young adult ministry.
“The flags, chants and camaraderie among the youth of the world in Christ was truly inspirational and meant so much to me. The encounters with the youth of the world constantly touched my heart and soul,” he said by e-mail.
A native of the island of Terceira in the Azores, he came to the United States as a toddler and grew up in Georgia. He dreamed of going to World Youth Day 1993 when it was held in Denver, but “God had it for me to attend this one,” Cleaver said.
Coming so close to the pope was one of the highlights of the trip.
“No words can accurately describe the utter joy and happiness we all had from being so close to the successor of Peter,” Cleaver wrote. “The presence of Jesus through the vicar of Christ was a pure, heavenly ecstasy that still permeates me.”
The YAM group said they came within a few feet of the pope.
“I was awed at how close we were, as he drove by in the popemobile,” said Olivia Balcom, from Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain. “It was truly a blessed experience to stand so close to our Holy Father. He has such kind eyes, and I realize the importance of his calling as our shepherd and am grateful that he considers the youth of the church a priority.”
Some parish youth groups also made the trek to Australia, including Duluth parishes of St. Monica and St. Benedict, accompanied by Father Jack Durkin and Father Paul Flood.
All of the groups from Atlanta attended many events throughout the week, including the closing Mass on Sunday, July 20.
The importance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of this new generation of Catholics was the heart of the pope’s message. A message of hope for the future of the Catholic Church encouraged Balcom, who also attended World Youth Day 2003 in Toronto.
“(Pope Benedict XVI) likened the young people of the church to the apostles. He challenged us to receive a ‘New Pentecost’ in which we would be inspired to teach and evangelize our faith,” said Balcom.
“The pope’s messages were always uplifting and enlightening, as a continued reflection of his wisdom as the successor to Peter,” added Cleaver. “We are truly blessed to have Pope Benedict XVI as our Holy Father. His words of wisdom were filled with love and hope in our beautiful faith. He called in particular to each and every one of us to be God’s personal witnesses to others in our own lives and to the rest of the world.”
The young adults also described with joy their sleeping arrangements, which Kathy Powell from St. Jude Church, Atlanta, said were “the best … of anyone we talked to.”
“We stayed at an Anglican boarding school for girls so we each had a nice bed, heating and bathrooms/showers that were designed for a lot of people to use,” she said.
The week was full of blessed experiences for many, including David McLaughlin, a chaperone with the Duluth group who is a volunteer youth leader at St. Monica’s.
McLaughlin said he and two teens on the trip, Jack Clarke and Joe Festa, were awake one night around 3 a.m. The three decided to go look for some coffee as they heard many things were going on all night long.
“We get to the coffee tent and there was only one person standing outside,” McLaughlin recalled. “I recognized him and shouted ‘Father John!’ … This was the priest that married my wife and me almost 19 years ago. … What a chance was that!”
Indeed, he had bumped into the former dean of student life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, who had married McLaughlin and his wife, Julie, on the campus in 1989. The priest, whom the couple had not seen since college, is now a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal with the religious name of Father Conrad.
Many of the Atlantans were pleased with how well they were treated by the city of Sydney and the residents of Australia. However, some encountered protestors.
Father Durkin recalled walking across the Sydney bridge to the closing Mass with his teens, when protestors began throwing condoms at the pilgrims.
“The young people responded by chanting ‘Jesus’,” said Father Durkin. “I think it was a great moment that showed the difference between the culture of death and the culture of life.”
But in the end, Father Durkin felt that “the city was won over by the enthusiasm of the teens.”
While World Youth Day was the reason to travel halfway across the globe, participants did make sure to take time to see some of the wonders Australia had to offer.
Many visited the Taronga Zoo, where they saw everything from koalas to kangaroos to platypuses. Others visited the Blue Mountains.
“We took the train up to Katoomba to see the Blue Mountains and the rock formation the Three Sisters. It was gorgeous, and being struck by the beauty of God’s creation really added to the week of pilgrimage,” wrote Powell after returning from Sydney.
The YAM group also visited St. Mary’s Cathedral where they prayed before the incorrupt body of Blessed Pier Frassati.
“My most memorable moment at WYD, besides standing six feet away from the pope, was kneeling six feet away from a saint,” said Yvonne Noggle, from the staff of the Office of Religious Education. “One of the patrons for World Youth Day was Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. … The World Youth Day organizers transferred his incorrupt body to St. Mary’s Cathedral so many pilgrims had the opportunity to make a special pilgrimage to this site.”
“What an honor to be in the presence of such a shining example of the light of God,” Cleaver commented. “Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and Blessed Mother Teresa reached out to me so many times on this trip, and I became so much more inspired and enlightened to live my life in a total consecration to Christ and his church.”
As the pilgrims came home exhausted and jetlagged, the importance of their trip continued to affect them. As they relived the experience, they still feel encouraged by what they witnessed.
“World Youth Day was an amazing experience that is continually opening my eyes to the subtle ways that God works in our lives,” wrote Julia Beck, a teen from St. Monica’s.
“To think that such hope exists for our world with these youth,” pondered McLaughlin. “The people of Sydney got to see a witness like no other witness the continent of Australia has ever seen—that young people are excited about their faith.”