The Bishop’s Letter: WYD11 an extraordinary time of grace
From Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Bishop of Parramatta, Published in Catholic Outlook, October 2011
“You cannot live your faith alone,” Pope Benedict told the 1.5 million young people gathered at Madrid’s Cuatro Veintos Air Base at the closing Mass of the 26th World Youth Day. “Following Jesus in faith is to walk with Him in the communion of the Church. You cannot follow Jesus alone."
WYD11 was an extraordinary time of grace for 280 young Parramatta pilgrims. With graces come challenges. Scorching heat, water shortages, a double-capacity crowd pushing many pilgrims out, a thunderstorm rendering Communion tents unusable: there was plenty to evoke our catch cry ‘I am a pilgrim not a tourist’!
It is an adage I hope our young people will carry through life. St Mary MacKillop did: similar words adorn her tomb.
As if to prepare them for such challenges the young people celebrated the Stations of the Cross Spanish-style, complete with Holy Week tableaux from all around Spain – lots of blood and gold – and a young man chanting a haunting cry of Good Friday grief.
“Dear young friends,” the Pope said, “may Christ’s love ... encourage you to go in search of those less fortunate ... be sure not to pass by on the other side in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give of your very best: your capacity for love and compassion.”
I saw this compassion in action. I was inspired by how well our young people looked out for each other, if needs be literally carrying each other. A number had disabilities, sickness or fatigue to contend with – the Young Order of Malta accompanied some with very significant disabilities – and all experienced the helping hand of Christ. The purifying effects of the pilgrim experience were very evident.
Our biggest ever WYD attendance
The Diocese of Parramatta had only ever had a few dozen participants at an overseas World Youth Day before. This time we had a few hundred – the second largest participation by an Australian diocese. This included more than 80 school students, more than 40 young teachers and more than 160 young adults.
For that I pay grateful tribute to our priests and parishioners, our Catholic Education Office and schools, the WYD Committee and our Youth Office, and the young people and their families, who all worked together to raise the funds and encourage participation.
Many describe it as the greatest experience of their lives (so far!) and as truly ‘life-changing’. They retell moving moments when they came to appreciate crucial things about themselves or God. Several intend to go to Mass weekly now. More regular prayer and Confession is also on their agenda. Some are discerning their vocations. All were struck by the size and universality of Christ’s flock and that Pope and Bishops take so seriously Christ's charge to Peter to ‘Feed my lambs’.
Foundations for life
The official theme, the bishops' catecheses and the papal messages all focussed directly on faith foundations for young lives. At the Papal Welcome in Plaza de Cibeles the Holy Father walked through the gates of Madrid, was greeted by our very own Bethany Lentern, was treated to a performance by dancing Spanish horses, and then addressed the assembled youth.
In answer to the post-modern question “Do we really need foundations for our lives?” the Pope observed that “There are many who believe they need no roots or foundations other than themselves. They take it upon themselves to decide what is true or not, what is good and evil, what is just and unjust; who should live and who can be sacrificed in the interests of other preferences; leaving each step to chance, with no clear path, letting themselves be led by the whim of each moment.”
Christians, the Holy Father argued, have an alternative approach to life. We know “that we have been created free, in the image of God, precisely so that we might be in the forefront of the search for truth and goodness, responsible for our actions; not mere blind executives, but creative co-workers in the task of cultivating and beautifying the work of creation.
“God is looking for a responsible interlocutor, someone who can dialogue with Him and love Him. Through Christ we can truly succeed and, established in Him, we give wings to our freedom. Is this not the great reason for our joy? Isn’t this the firm ground upon which to build the civilisation of love and life, capable of humanising all of us?”
Faith in the storm
At the Vigil, amidst lightning, driving rain and the fall of the World Youth Day cross directly upon the head of one of the bishops, Pope Benedict refused to leave the stage.
Once things calmed down the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in the Toledo monstrance – the most beautiful in the world, made from the first gold brought back from the New World. The devotion of the young people was palpable.
Here they were reminded of the great truth of life: that God loves us. “This is what makes everything else meaningful,” the Pope said. “We are not the product of blind chance or absurdity; instead our life originates as part of a loving plan of God. To abide in His love, then, means living a life planted in faith."
But faith is much more than acknowledging certain abstract truths. It is “an intimate relationship with Christ, who enables us to open our hearts to this mystery of love and to live as men and women conscious of being loved by God.
“If you abide in the love of Christ, planted in the faith, you will encounter, even amid setbacks and suffering, the source of true happiness and joy. Faith does not run counter to your highest ideals; on the contrary, it elevates and perfects those ideals. Dear young people, do not be satisfied with anything less than Truth and Love, do not be content with anything less than Christ ...
“May no adversity paralyse you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your own weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound throughout the world.”
Not going it alone
In his closing homily the Pope cautioned young people against the temptation to 'go it alone'. Living individualistically risks “never meeting Jesus Christ or ending up following a false image of Him.”
“Having faith means drawing support from the faith of your brothers and sisters, even as your own faith supports the faith of others. I ask you, dear friends, to love the Church which brought you to birth in the faith, which helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ and which led you to discover the beauty of his love."
Growing in friendship with Christ and His Church, the Pope explained, requires "joyful participation in the life of your parishes, communities and movements, as well as the celebration of Sunday Mass, frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the cultivation of personal prayer and meditation on God’s word.
“Friendship with Jesus will also lead you to bear witness to the faith wherever you are, even when it meets with rejection or indifference. We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others. So do not keep Christ to yourselves! Share with others the joy of your faith.
“The world,” the Pope stressed, “needs the witness of your faith: it certainly needs God”. He exhorted the young people to be “disciples and missionaries who aspire to great things".
There is every reason to hope that the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta has 300 new missionaries. The challenge now will be to unpack the Pope’s rich messages with the returnees and their peers; to find new places for them to lead and to serve; to draw them ever more closely into the ordinary life of the Church so they can help make that life extraordinary.
Bishop Anthony’s pastoral letters in Catholic Outlook are archived at:
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