Local youths make it to Australia, awaiting WYD
by Joe Kohn of The Michigan Catholic
Detroit — There have been a lot of "g'days" being exchanged by area youths this week in Australia.
As World Youth Day approaches this weekend, hundreds of local youths have now been on the island continent for nearly two weeks, praying, sharing cultures with Catholics from around the world, sight-seeing, fighting the winter chill, and getting ready to meet the pontiff.
"It's so much easier to see the universality of the Church this way," said Stephanie Mantey, a 19-year-old pilgrim from Immaculate Conception Parish in Lapeer. "Being able to spend a couple weeks even with people who are Catholic and know their faith well and try to live it — it's an eye opener. Then seeing people all around the world like that? It's quite unifying."
Mantey is one of 640 pilgrims — most of them in their teens and early 20s — from the Archdiocese of Detroit who are taking part in a wide array of World Youth Day activities in and around Sydney, Australia. Last week, about half the pilgrims took part in Days in the Diocese, a precursor to the week of World Youth Day festivities.
World Youth Day, which takes place every two or three years in a different part of the world, was a tradition started by Pope John Paul II in the 1980s. Past celebrations have garnered some of the largest crowds in recorded history.
Mantey is part of a 39-member pilgrimage group called the Trailblazers, which each year plans pilgrimages to different parts of the world and places a special focus on World Youth Day.
The Trailblazers spent last week at Kilbreda College, a Catholic school in Melbourne, staying with other youths from England, Switzerland and Germany. When they arrived, the youths took part in a Mass concelebrated by priests from five continents. After Mass each day, they socialized during a "morning tea" with youths from England to Hong Kong.
Fr. Paul Ward, associate pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Grotto) Parish in Detroit, said the pilgrims were getting a "fabulous reception." The young people also appear to be taking well to the diversity of Catholics and the sameness of the faith.
"With all the attacks on the Church right now, it's a strength that we have to be universal and to be the same everywhere," said Brien Dux, an 18-year-old Grotto parishioner. "You can go anywhere, have the same Mass, believe the same and have the same faith as people around you."
A fellow Trailblazer, 21-year-old Justin Hall, has been seeing the pilgrimage as an eye-opener. Hall, a parishioner at St. Stephen in New Boston, just entered the Church this past Easter. "Really, I've grown so much more spiritually than I thought I would have," he said about the pilgrimage. "Wherever we are, we're always praying."
At the same time he's learning the prayers that united the Church — such as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Angelus and Eucharistic Adoration — he's also meeting Catholic young people from all kinds of backgrounds. "There's so much to learn," Hall added. "The Church has so much to offer."
While various parish and youth groups have planned their own routes to Sydney, the Archdiocese of Detroit organized the World Youth Day pilgrimage for about 320 local youths and chaperones.
Most of those pilgrims spent last week camping out in tents in a "global village" with youths from several countries, including the Cook Islands, Morocco and Monaco.
Because the Detroit-area pilgrims were in tents, they were caught off-guard by unusually chilly temperatures. The first week, temperatures — supposedly Australia's coldest in the past 10 years — dipped below freezing. On top of it, glitches in the logistics left some campers without various supplies, such as sleeping bags. They ended their first week last Sunday, when they were able to find a warmer shelter at St. Paul the Apostle Elementary School in Winston Hills, a western suburb of Sydney.
"The biggest challenge was the cold and not having the equipment," said Joyce Francois, director of the Youth Ministry Office of the Archdiocese of Detroit and also leader of the pilgrimage. "But we're pilgrims. We knew what we were getting into before we left."
Accordingly, Francois said the pilgrims took advantage when it came to sharing their faith with fellow pilgrims from the world over.
Shauna Barcewicz, a 23-year-old from Our Lady of Refuge Parish in Orchard Lake, could attest: "When we got to Days in the Diocese, we were like, 'How are we going to be able to do this for four days?" But when we left, it had become routine. Part of me misses it."
Barcewicz described a Mass organized by pilgrims from the Cook Islands, which are in the South Pacific. Participants wore headdresses and grass skirts, and made a spirited and song-filled procession of the Gospel. "The way they presented the Gospel, the way they walked up to the book was very different than what we're used to," she said.
The pilgrims got used to other things, as well. Some learned the sports of rugby and footsie. Some also shared their culture and got an idea of other cultures during a global talent show, dubbed "Global Idol."
"By the time we left, everybody was a family," said 18-year-old Jack Bolton, a parishioner of National Shrine of the Little Flower Parish in Royal Oak.
"Everyone is so open and friendly because we all share the same faith," he added.
Yet another pilgrimage group, one formed from Oakland County's young adult group Genesis Ministries, received a big Australian welcome as they were placed in the homes of local Catholics in Australia.
On their blog, members of the group tell of the generosity of the local Catholics as well as their prayer-filled trips to Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral and other destinations.
"Although things have not always gone according to plan, everyone we have encountered has gone out of their way to make sure that our time here is nothing but blessed," wrote Genesis Ministries' Rakhi Roy of the pilgrimage. "We can face all struggles with the knowledge that in the end, all will be well."
No matter what group they're with, pilgrims point to a number of ways they're connecting with Christ during the pilgrimage.
Some say that the beauty of nature in Australia has reminded them of the gloriousness of God's creation.
Also, all of the pilgrims appear to be looking forward to this weekend's liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI.
"When the pope steps into a stadium or an arena, all of a sudden there's just an energy in the air," said Dux. "It'd be very cool meeting the vicar of Christ."