MONTHS BEFORE WORLD Youth Day 2008 (WYD08), a Singaporean friend, who has been living in Sydney for the last eight years, complained to me that the hundreds of thousands of Catholics expected to come to "his city" for the event would cause disruptions and inconveniences to his daily life.
During the two weeks that I
spent in Australia – the first week
in Melbourne for "Days of the
Diocese" and the second in Sydney – his comments stayed with me and I constantly wondered if we, the pilgrims, were a welcoming presence to the Australians and, if not, what sort of testimony to our faith we were.
For the Australians, the inconveniences were aplenty. Roads
were closed for pilgrims to walk
along – this meant the locals had to reroute to reach the office or
home. Every WYD08 event filled streets with pilgrims marching toward train stations – not by the dozens, but by the thousands. Sometimes, Sydneysiders got caught in this torrent and were swept unwillingly along.
We were noisy – cheering and
singing late into the night everyday.
At Darling Harbour, a bayside place much like our Vivocity, an evening out for the locals was
interrupted by cheers from pilgrims passing by after a Praise and Worship session at Barangaroo. Some smiled at us, others looked displeased.
Whenever the pilgrims got
together, we shouted our respective
country’s cheers and songs. Even we, Singaporeans, who didn’t really have a national cheer, made up our own chants and sang "We are Singapore".
At that point, this phenomenon
didn’t seem any different from a major football event where hundreds of different countries vie to outdo one another.
I wondered why we weren’t singing some Catholic hymns that we all know? We’re not there representing our countries but representing our faith, after all, and WYD08 was a golden opportunity to do that!
I remember one group – Zimbabwean pilgrims, I think – who sang the WYD08 theme song "Receive the Power" and beat their bongos and drums in public. Some other pilgrims joined in. Non-pilgrims observed but didn’t seem harassed.
That encouraged me. I hoped
non-Catholic Australians would see
our faith through our presence and
be curious enough to wonder why
we were there doing what we were
doing and not feel themselves proven right for thinking that we would be a nuisance.
The sight of pilgrims greeting one another cheerfully showed clearly that it didn’t matter where we were from and whether we could speak the same language. When we could, we engaged in conversation, unafraid to say hello
because we understood that the pilgrim marching next to us was our brother or sister; we were bonded together by a common faith.
That provided security in a world of hundreds of cultures that sometimes give rise to feelings of anger, fear and distrust.
It was then that it occurred to
me, for the first time in my life, why
the youth are really our future.
It is the new generation who can
begin to sow the seeds of peace and
harmony in our world. Exposing them to an experience like WYD08
where they meet different peoples could just be the way to ensure they will begin to do that without suspicion of one another.
One experience that will be etched
in my mind was the Pilgrim Walk to Randwick Racecourse for the
evening vigil and morning Mass
with the pope. Just before reaching
Randwick Racecouse we had to walk by a park where hundreds of protesters gathered to jeer us. There were Sydney Atheists groups and others who threw condoms at us, insisting the pope is wrong to discourage the use of condoms. They were much more aggressive than other protesters who peacefully handed condoms to pilgrims at major-event venues.
"The Holy See is blind" and "The Pope is a Dope!" were some placards and banners I saw. There was even a protester who dressed to look like the pope, and who brandished a fake sword and a signboard that read, "Gaylord".
The police was able to keep us safe from physical harm from these protesters, but we could not escape the barrage of verbal abuse and angry taunts.
For once, since we arrived in Australia for WYD08, the pilgrims were silenced.
At the personal level, I was angry and deeply saddened. "Hey,
we are merely pilgrims on our way, doing our own thing. Leave us alone!" I wanted to yell at our tormentors. But, on another level, being at WYD08 connected one closely with the Gospel values of love and forgiveness, and that made me want to say, "We love you!" A few other Singaporean pilgrims shared with me later that they too felt similar emotions. We couldn’t tell them we love them and we couldn’t retaliate. How did that reflect upon us – not as persons but as Catholic pilgrims?
So, helplessly, we could only suffer their mockery of our faith.
And then something happened to turn the situation; we started to sing the chorus from "Receive the Power". Although there are many different verses in various languages, the chorus is in English – and most pilgrims knew how to sing that. The song was picked up by the pilgrims and everyone sang as one.
For me, that song blocked out all the protesters’ taunts. It was all I heard. And it carried me through that stretch of the Pilgrim Walk. When I emerged from that long stretch, there was a sense of well-being and safety. We had made it. And we had kept our hearts in the right places.
Admittedly, it wasn’t my choice to
go to WYD08. My boss sent me.
Two weeks is a long time to live like a pilgrim, eating rations, sleeping in the cold (two to eight degrees Celsius) on the hard floors of school halls, sometimes having to take a cold shower (even hot showers left you cold once the water was turned off).
But it was through these sometimes difficult situations that I encountered angels sent by God, Australian Catholics who
generously welcomed us into their
homes, who prepared breakfasts for
us and who rearranged their daily schedules to drive us to and from train stations. In Melbourne, they were subject to water rationing – how could accommodating pilgrims in their home help their situation? – yet they welcomed us.
I wonder if Singaporean parishioners would be as generous in welcoming foreign pilgrims into their homes if we ever hold a World Youth Day.
More than the creature comforts, what is truly significant is how a pilgrim’s heart gets rejuvenated by a certain warmth that only love brings.
I like to think that the youth who experienced World Youth Day, would be the ones to remember this hospitality and love,
and in turn, shower it unto others.
I had read in an article written by a pilgrim from the last World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, that the effects of World Youth Day are truly felt only after the event. I can’t agree more. Returning from WYD08, though physically exhausted, I unpacked to discover I’ve brought home a lot of love, a rejuvenated spirituality and new friends.
The bubbly excitement I had
felt upon reaching Australia has been shaped into something quieter
and more tranquil within me – as if I’m wrapped in love itself. And when I share my experiences with fellow pilgrims, I notice a similar pattern. We all had our moments of
weaknesses and faltering. But it was
in those moments that we found grace – strength in vulnerability, courage in the face of difficulties, a new way of living life.
I chatted with a retired Australian, Nigel, on the plane back to Singapore. He was full of praise for the WYD08 pilgrims. He told me the media was full of
criticism for WYD08 before we arrived but the tone changed when we got there. He felt good because he was surrounded by happy and polite people everywhere he went. He said he didn’t recall any other time he was at an airport and there was no shoving or cutting of queues, and everyone was kind and warm. My heart swelled hearing his words.
"Are you Catholic?" I asked.
"No! No, I’m not. I’m Anglican," he replied.
So, yes, I acknowledge that the
hundreds of thousands of World Youth Day pilgrims in Australia did cause some major disruptions to the daily life of Australians but I hope we left behind, and took home too, something of great value – a new way to express love
and unity, a powerful reminder for us all to recognize the brother and sister in the other regardless of race, nationality or religion –
what it means to be a Catholic. - By Joyce Gan