After a long slog home through delayed flights, and hours in airports with life on hold, I’m finally home, and Sydney is a memory.

A sweet memory.

World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, was my third time covering World Youth Day for the Register. After spending the week with more than 200,000 young Catholics as part of the international event Down Under, I’m convinced that World Youth Day offers a small glimpse, this side of eternity, of what we might expect to find in heaven.

With all that youth and excitement, there is a party-like atmosphere, in the very best sense of the word, in the air. But there’s so much more.

The first three mornings of the World Youth Day week always started with catechesis by the bishops of the world, followed by Mass. When I got to the church, I was struck that you could spend your entire life learning about the treasures of the Church, and still only scratch the surface.

The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. So even the catechesis is a kind of foretaste of heaven, where we’ll encounter an inexhaustible source of wisdom.

Then there is the international unity. As you travel the sidewalks and streets, you cannot help but cross paths with people of every nation — smiling, singing, dancing for Christ. You may not share their language, but you share the same faith.

It is that witness that most pilgrims bring back from World Youth Day. They realize, many for the first time in their lives, that they belong to something far larger than their local parish or diocese. They belong to a communion of faith that surpasses even time and space.

World Youth Day brings to life the Scriptures that speak of baptizing all nations, going to the ends of the earth, and every knee bowing.

At these events, it’s only natural to run across old friends, and make new ones along the way, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. One Tasmanian group told me of getting on a train only to discover a different group of Tasmanians they didn’t know. You share a bond with nearly everyone you meet, realizing that you are brothers and sisters in the Lord.

There is a tremendous amount of love and respect — all of it but a reflection of the authentic unity we’ll find in heaven in the communion of saints.

Throughout the week there are more activities going on than you can possibly be a part of, and yet they’re all uplifting, encouraging events that edify faith. There are concerts, dances, films, lectures, workshops and service opportunities.

You can go from a spirited talk by theology of the body authority Christopher West, to a solemn classical concert, to a theology discussion in a pub, to a debate on evolution featuring one of the Church’s cardinals.

It’s like the many facets of truth, beauty and goodness we’ll see in heaven.

Not only are the pilgrims united in joy, in singing, and in praise, but they are also united deeply in prayer.

At World Youth Day the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation in different languages are celebrated almost continuously.

And, of course, the event takes place in the presence of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. He’s not only our Church leader, but also Peter, the Rock left by Christ to guide us toward heaven.

“We have seen the Church for what she truly is: the Body of Christ, a living community of love, embracing people of every race, nation and tongue, of every time and place, in the unity born of our faith in the risen Lord,” said Pope Benedict XVI at the closing Mass at Randwick Racecourse.

Sydney Cardinal George Pell said almost the very same thing.

“At World Youth Day the Church appears as she truly is, alive with evangelical energy,” said the cardinal, pointing out the College of Bishops gathered united around the Vicar of Christ.

“We see many young priests …eager seminarians … radiant young women religious … young couples … families, parents, children … young men and women … faithful disciples of all generations who show us that to be Catholic is a joyful and happy thing,” said Cardinal Pell.

Indeed, spending a few days with a Church that is so joy-filled, so centered on Christ, so alive, it makes one yearn for the life that is to come.

And, if it’s too long to wait, there’s always Madrid 2011, the site of the next World Youth Day.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.