SYDNEY, Australia — Not since World Youth Day was held in the Philippines 19 years ago, has the event had such a Pacific face.

Among the more than 225,000 youth gathered in Sydney, many are coming from countries that have never before been represented at World Youth Day.

“I’m proud of efforts by WYD to get Third World pilgrims to WYD,” said Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, coordinator of the event. “For many this is their once-ever chance to get to WYD.”

Bishop Fisher provided some figures to prove his point. At World Youth Day in Cologne, there were only 100 New Zealanders present, 10 from Papua New Guinea, and fewer than 100 from other Pacific islands.

At World Youth Day in Sydney, there were more than 4,500 New Zealanders, 2,000 from Papua New Guinea, and 1,000 each from islands such as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. In addition, World Youth Day Sydney was the first time that pilgrims from East Timor have ever been able to be present at the event.

Papua New Guinea pilgrim Felicitas Dau, 27, came with a group of 51 from the West New Britain area of Papua New Guinea.

“It’s really amazing for us to be here,” she said. “We’re really enjoying it — meeting all the people and different races. It’s wonderful to become one in Christ.”

She said she was touched by what Pope Benedict XVI had to say on his arrival.

“He was asking us to go out and preach the Word of God,” Dau said. “It’s up to us, the young people, to be a new generation for the Catholic Church and help the Church to grow.”

Struggles in the Asian Church

World Youth Day offers young Catholics from Southeast Asia the opportunity to gather together in a place where they have complete religious freedom. That right is not provided in many Pacific nations. Those from Myanmar (Burma), for example, are not free to build new churches or have large religious gatherings without government approval.

“The Catholic Church wants to live its own life and be able to express its faith and assist those in need — feeding, clothing and educating the people in Burma,” said Bishop Julian Porteous, auxiliary bishop of Sydney. “The Church does not desire to be a political force, but to help the people in Burma.”

“We wanted to see the Pope,” said Tujai Maru, a 26-year-old pilgrim from northern Myanmar who was part of a pilgrimage group of 33, including six priests and three nuns, from that country. “We also wanted to see what the other youth of the world are doing and be here with them.”

Filipino priest Father Anthony Laureta highlighted some additional challenges facing Pacific Catholics. “We have many influences coming from the outside — secularism and globalization. Seeing what has happened in Australia helps us to know how to minister to our young people.”

Another challenge facing the Church in the Philippines is Muslim extremism, added Father Antonio Perez.

“It’s getting quite extreme in the southern Philippines,” said Father Perez. “The Church is trying to promote interreligious dialogue.”

Filipino Catholics

Filipino Catholics were present in force at World Youth Day ’08.

“We’ve been unable to attend since 1995,” said Father Laureta, from the city of Cavite in the Philippine Diocese of Imus. “No matter how much we wanted to attend, it was too expensive for us.” He attended World Youth Day 2008 with 32 pilgrims, a handful of priests, two nuns, and their bishop, Luis Antonio Tagle.

Father Laureta said that there were only two Filipino delegates sent to WYD in Germany.

In addition to the closeness, another factor that drew the Filipinos to Australia was the fact that it was far easier for them to obtain visas.

“It’s wonderful to experience how Catholics can be united and young people can see another perspective,” said Father Laureta. “They can see how we can be the Church and be one, despite all our differences.”

He added that attending WYD also helped him understand how to deal with the issues facing young people in an increasingly secularized culture.

Father Perez estimated that of all Asian Catholics, those from the Philippines represent approximately 60% of the total, with 75-80 million. In fact, the Diocese of Imus is sometimes referred to as the mini-Vatican because there are more than 100 religious communities within it.

“Economically we are poor, but spiritually we are quite rich,” said Father Perez. “We are not rich in natural resources, but Filipinos cling to their faith despite difficult times.”

Original Inhabitants

In addition to Pacific islanders, World Youth Day Sydney also provided a unique opportunity for indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders to attend and participate in the event being held on their lands. Twenty-two percent of indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are Catholic.

A 17-person Indigenous Communities Advisory Committee was established in 2006 to guide the native elements of World Youth Day and to encourage aborigines to come to the event.

Aboriginal peoples participated in nearly every event in Sydney. At the Seventh Station of the Cross, for example, an aborigine played the role of Simon the Cyrene. Aboriginal artwork and music was present at nearly every major event, decorating the sanctuary at the closing Mass, and even all of the priests’ vestments.

“People will find the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders more present at this event than ever before,” said Bishop Fisher. “That reflects a commitment by the Church standing up for aboriginal rights when others did not, including Australia’s earliest bishops.”

In addition to those from the Pacific, also present were the children of Asian immigrants.

Father Vinod George, a priest with the Syro-Malabar Catholic rite in the Diocese of Chicago, accompanied a group of 20 children of Indian immigrants.

They were hopeful that the presence of Pacific Catholics could perhaps have a transformative effect on those who may not be Catholic.

Sunil Nadarajan, a Hindu convert to the Catholic faith, spoke of the power of Christ to convert.

“The tradition of the sacraments led me to the faith,” said Nadarajan. “Through WYD, youth can say, ‘I’m not a minority.’”

Tim Drake filed this story from

Sydney, Australia.