SYDNEY, Australia—World Youth Day hype, so what’s the big deal? Well, I decided to find out and “mix with the crowds.” I must say, the experience was rather pleasant and a lot more fun than I expected.
As some 500,000 hyperactive and overtly friendly pilgrims avalanched Sydney’s streets, the city panicked. Road closures were predicted to be more disruptive than those during APEC and the 2000 Olympics combined. Specific WYD laws were passed that threatened $500 fines to anyone found to be “annoying” to the Catholic participants.
Perhaps the threats have deterred the locals, but certainly not the pilgrims. They are everywhere – walking down the streets at Coogee Beach, strolling around Leichhardt’s Italian quarter, buzzing on the trains, singing and dancing in the parks.
They were even spotted swimming at some of Sydney’s deserted beaches – naturally, the locals stay away as the freezing spell continues to plague us, with July recording some of the lowest temperatures in over 10 years.
Albeit for the German and Czech youths, Australian “harsh winters” are just child’s play. As they plunged into the icy waters at Malabar beach, sending a chilling scream throughout the neighbourhood, their more conservative counterparts in priestly robes stood patiently on the sand. Indeed a worthy site.
However, what is truly flabbergasting is the spontaneous festive atmosphere that has transformed Sydney from a selfish, dull, smog-filled rat race into a drug-free, alcohol-free 24-hour street party.
The flag waving, joyful youths travelled from over 160 countries for the 10th WYD. Most are simply too excited to talk, while others are keen to swap hats, jewellery, WYD pins or other small knick-knacks. Swapping is the way of making new friends, they say.
Claire, 16 from Papua New Guinea, was keen to give me her multi-coloured rainbow hat, but I insisted that I had nothing to swap for it. Although no deal was made, we still took photos and gave each other big hugs before parting.
“It’s amazing!” said Clair, with a big grin on her face. She came to Sydney with the other 60 Papuans from her parish in Port Moresby.
While the Catholic faith has seen a rapid decline in popularity in recent decades, events such as WYD give hope that religion may still be fun.
“It’s an encouragement to everyone here. There are so many young people from all over the world who feel the same way and are encouraged. So I think that’s beautiful,” said Kent Right, who came to Sydney as a volunteer for the New York-based Sisters of Life organisation.
If the founding motto of WYD in 1986 was to unite the world’s Catholic youth, this year’s event has achieved just that. How often do you see an American Catholic priest casually chatting to a group of Mexicans on a park bench, Lebanese boys singing with Colombians or Italians dancing with Brazilians. Teenagers, adults, kids, nuns and priests are all having a ball at this unusual “holy party.”
“They take their culture and put it together and it’s so beautiful. When I see the turnout, the numbers, its amazing, so great,” said Sowani from a Fijian seminary, while chatting to me on a busy China Town street corner.
World Youth Day was established by the late Pope John Paul II to reach out to the youth of the world. Naturally, for the Poles attending WYD, the event carries a special meaning.
“For me, it’s a very good idea – you know, it’s the Polish Pope who came up with the idea. Because the young people can meet in one place and pray together. It means a lot to me,” said Peter Ramlrnu, who is visiting Sydney for two weeks from Poland.
For a whole week, Sydney has become a giant church hall, with Masses taking place across hundreds of churches in most suburbans areas, where pilgrims have been billeted by the locals.
Large screens in the city centre display daily prayers, while SMS messages from the Pope himself to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have become the latest high-tech addition to WYD festivities.
Talking about firsts, the 81-year-old German Holy Father decided to “walk on the water” this year. Well, not quite, but the spectacular boat-a-cade on the harbour for Pope Benedict’s formal entry into Sydney on Thursday July 17 did smear the more traditional Pope-mobile parade that followed it.
As half a million people packed every street corner of central Sydney, another billion people were estimated to have watched the event around the globe. Down Under is once again in the spotlight, and we’re loving it.
Aussies can now proclaim to be the nation of not just great cricketers, swimmers and rugby players. We are also the nation that knows how to host one of the world’s biggest Holy Masses as well.