SYDNEY, Australia — With just days to go before World Youth Day ’08, excitement is high in Sydney and abroad in preparation for the arrival of more than 125,000 pilgrims.
By all counts, the event will be the biggest, in terms of participants, ever held in Australia.
Pope Benedict XVI will join the pilgrims towards the end of the July 15-20 gathering.
“Excitement is building among Sydneysiders to once again host the world,” said Jim Hanna, WYD director of communications. “I believe it started with television coverage of the Pope’s visit to the United States, which was clearly a bigger success than some commentators had expected.”
Hanna said that with the release of the papal itinerary there was a shift in both the media and the public’s attitude.
Other cities throughout Australia are also readying for the event. The week before World Youth Day, thousands of young people are being introduced to the land, culture, peoples and Church in Australia through “Days in the Diocese.”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne expects approximately 25,000 youth, and more than 1,500 will be staying in homes in the Diocese of Wollongong, including 121 from the Archdiocese of Denver, 68 from the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., 50 from the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., and 42 from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“‘Days in the Diocese’ will bring our diocese together in a way never experienced in our diocese,” said Daniel Hopper, Wollongong diocesan executive director for WYD08.
As part of “Days in the Diocese” in Wollongong, the local Church will host an evening prayer service celebrating indigenous Australia, an “Everything Aussie” festival featuring Australian entertainment, food and sporting events, and a WYD commissioning Mass celebrated by Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham in the city’s WIN Entertainment Center.
All the preparations come at a cost. For Hopper, it has meant a workload of 16-17 hour days and only one day a week to spend with his wife and children.
In order to manage where all the international youth are staying during the “Days in the Diocese,” the Diocese of Wollongong designed an information technology system to oversee the process — a system that the diocese then sold to a number of other dioceses as well.
For WYD volunteer Chelsea Pelham, preparing for the event has meant being away from family, friends and her fiancé. Pelham, who is from New Zealand, came to Sydney last July. She’s one of 8,000 volunteers giving her time to make World Youth Day possible.
Pelham served as a long-term volunteer in the WYD office as the “Journey of the Cross and Icon” liaison. In that role, she oversaw the journey of the cross and icon as it traveled throughout all of Australia. Their journey will end in Sydney as World Youth Day begins.
It’s Pelham’s first WYD and she’s excited to be able to participate as a pilgrim. She’ll be among the youth helping to carry the cross and icon into the opening Mass July 15. She’s most looking forward to the Saturday evening vigil and Sunday’s final Mass with Pope Benedict.
While she expects to grow spiritually during the festival, she said that her year volunteering has already provided opportunities for spiritual growth.
“I have come to terms with the idea of suffering and know of the need to trust in God with all I am and experience,” said Pelham. “The sacraments for me now also play a much stronger role in my spiritual nourishment than prior to coming to WYD.”
The preparations for international pilgrims like Leesha Plante of Coon Rapids, Minn., began more than a year ago. Plante will be attending World Youth Day with 15 other young women as part of the international apostolic movement of Schoenstatt.
Among the daunting challenges faced by the international pilgrims was raising funds. At more than $3,000 per pilgrim, the cost has made it prohibitive for as many American youth to attend. Whereas approximately 60,000 U.S. pilgrims registered for the last World Youth Day in Cologne, slightly more than 20,000 have registered for the event in Sydney.
“Some of us have been saving every cent from the jobs we have ever since last summer,” said Plante, whose work as a personal-care assistant has made the pilgrimage possible.
She noted that the fiscal planning hasn’t been their only preparation, and in many ways not their priority.
“We have been discovering and discerning the spiritual reasons we would decide to go on pilgrimage, what a pilgrimage means, and the ways we can spiritually prepare for it,” said Plante. “Throughout the year we have been praying for the pilgrimage, for each other, and for all the WYD participants.”
In preparation, their group has frequently prayed a decade of the Rosary, the Angelus, and the World Youth Day prayer.
In addition, the group offered sacrifices during Lent and members are keeping journals that they will continue during the pilgrimage. One member of the group will lead morning devotions each day of the pilgrimage.
“Our goal is to have a personal and deep encounter with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit in Australia,” said Plante.
Questioning WYD Numbers
“One of the hardest things is getting our own people to register,” said Hopper, Wollongong’s executive director for the festival. “Australians tend to do everything at the last minute and when you add ‘youth’ into the mix, it’s even doubly hard.”
Organizers have long expected at least 125,000 international and 100,000 domestic registered pilgrims.
“International registrations have been solid and we expect to meet our planning target of 125,000 overseas pilgrims,” said Hanna, the director of communications. “Even though we always expected that it would be one of the smaller international WYD gatherings purely because of cost and distance from the huge Catholic population centers of Europe and the U.S.”
The largest source of countries sending pilgrims includes the United States, with more than 20,000, Italy, with 15,000, Germany, with 8,000, New Zealand, with 5,500, Canada and Spain, sending 5,000 each, and the Philippines sending 4,000.
Some media reports have questioned the target of 125,000 because of the number of WYD08 visas issued. Hanna explained that such reports are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Australia’s visa system.
“It’s a mistake to suggest the number of WYD08 pilgrims will be lower than expected based on the number of WYD08 visas issued,” he said.
“Australia has had in place, for some time, streamlined visa processing procedures for 32 countries and regions,” he said. “What this means is that pilgrims from these 32 countries and regions don’t need a WYD08 visa to enter Australia. They can get a visa on departure from their country and won’t be counted among the visas issued specifically for WYD08.”
According to Hanna, two-thirds of the overseas pilgrims are coming from these countries, which include the United States, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. New Zealanders can enter Australia without a visa.
Whatever the numbers, young Catholics from around the world are set to encounter Pope Benedict, one another and Jesus Christ in the land called “Oz.”
“We always knew that the Aussies would come in late, but we are seeing growth in this segment as well,” said Danny Casey, chief operating officer for World Youth Day Sydney. “It’s great to see so many locals excited about this event.”
Tim Drake will be reporting from
Sydney during World Youth Day.
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