Cross Roads

Australia is preparing for WYD/SYD 2008.

Australia’s Aborigines remember Pope John Paul II.

“In 1986, Pope John Paul II invited aboriginal people to be part of the Church,” explained Kim Rays, 17, of the Gimuy Wallaburra Yindindji tribe.

Twenty-one years later, their response promises to be overwhelming. In fact, thousands of Aborigines may be in attendance at a special youth gathering — World Youth Day — founded by Pope John Paul, which will be held in Australia next year.

The Pope also gave a special World Youth Day cross to the youth of the world in 1983, and that cross has been traveling throughout Australia for three months, along with a special icon of the Mother of God.

But for this WYD, known as “WYD/SYD 2008” because it will be held in Sydney, another item is going along with the cross and icon — an aboriginal message stick.

The stick bears carved aboriginal images of a whale and eagle, as well as a WYD/SYD 2008 image. In the past, message sticks functioned much like modern-day mail, allowing aboriginal tribes to communicate and invite other tribes to banquets or gatherings. They are considered sacred, and therefore may be handled only by indigenous people.

“The message stick invites all aboriginal people to come to World Youth Day,” said Rays.

When Bishop Anthony Fisher, World Youth Day coordinator, asked a Catholic aboriginal tribal elder what proportion of young aboriginal Catholics might attend, the elder responded, “All of them, of course.”

“If they all came, there would be 30,000. We’d be happy with 300 or 3,000,” said Bishop Fisher. “They’ve been wonderful about giving us ideas about participating in the WYD events.”

Packed Schedule

The schedule for the WYD cross and icon is packed between now and its arrival in Sydney next July. In a country roughly the same size as the United States, with vast stretches of desert and outback, the team traveling with the cross has its work cut out for them.

In preparation for the cross’ arrival in the Diocese of Wollongong, south of Sydney, next March, the diocese is planning a major event to include a Mass held in the city’s entertainment center, a barbecue and an event in the WIN stadium featuring music and the opportunity for people to venerate the cross.

Daniel Hopper, Wollongong diocesan executive officer for World Youth Day Sydney, said they may have as many as 6,000 for the Mass and as many as 20,000 for the stadium event. The city also plans to host upwards of 2,000 youth for Days in the Diocese, preceding World Youth Day.

“We’re the only diocese co-hosting World Youth Day week and hosting Days in the Diocese,” said Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham. “It will be a cultural exchange in the context of faith. That’s how we make a difference — a difference for the good.”

Replica Cross

Wollongong youth have gone as far as producing a replica cross in preparation for the real WYD cross’ arrival. Stephen Varney, a fourth-generation carpenter and senior at Wollongong University, created a replica of the cross out of pine. He described it as a labor of love.

“Working on the cross made me think about my career path and how difficult it would have been for Christ to carry,” said Varney. “This thing would have been so heavy. I’m used to paintings of Jesus as a bearded lady. Making the cross helped me to realize he was a man. Sometimes I think we forget the reality of what happened.”

The World Youth Day cross already has an illustrious history: It has visited the site of the destroyed World Trade Center and post-genocide Rwanda.

Australian organizers say they have already seen the cross’ impact on young Australians. Not only is it preparing the way for World Youth Day, but it’s also inspiring young people, many of whom haven’t been active in the practice of their faith.

Sean O’Connor was one of about a dozen youth who were invited aboard the HMAS Broome, an Australian naval patrol boat, to bring the cross recently to the Great Barrier Reef.

“I lost my way with my faith,” said the 17-year-old. “I never really connected the way I do now. The WYD cross has gotten me involved at a new level. It’s given me a direction to assume my faith.”

O’Connor, who grew up on a dairy farm outside of Cairns, first became involved with the World Youth Day cross after hearing about it at his school — Mount St. Bernard’s College — from Deacon Matt Ransom.

“Matt was looking for volunteers to help,” said O’Connor. “I thought it might be an interesting thing to get involved in.”

Aboard the Broome, O’Connor helped move the cross and hold it steady on the ship, and made sure the icon didn’t get wet when the crew members hosed off the deck.

Jacinta Jacs of Adelaide has temporarily given up her studies as a law student and her job with a bank to accompany the cross. Jacs, 23, is one of a team of seven who have accompanied the cross since its arrival in Sydney on July 1. The team uses a van donated by Mercedes-Benz and a specially designed trailer to bring the cross and icon throughout the country. She will be traveling with it until the end of November, when another team of volunteers will assume custody of the cross, accompanying it up until its arrival in Sydney during World Youth Day.

“This is a way for rural areas to experience World Youth Day as well,” said Jacs. “It’s a real privilege to take the cross and icon to those places.”

Following the cross’ journey to the Great Barrier Reef, Bishop James Foley of Cairns led an evening prayer service by candlelight outside St. Monica’s Cathedral. Then young people processed singing and praying with the cross, along the city’s oceanside boardwalk Esplanade, in view of families sharing picnics in the park, ending at a bandshell at Fogarty Park where many stopped to enjoy music from the World Youth Day band and to venerate the cross and icon of Our Lady.

The journey of the cross demonstrates that the benefits of this international gathering begin long before the actual event, and last long after.

“To have a next generation asking [faith-based] questions at a crucial time in their life and experiencing what they are given at WYD will be wonderfully fruitful for this country,” said Bishop Fisher. “We’re already seeing some of those fruits with the journey of the WYD cross and icon.”

Tim Drake filed this report from Sydney, Australia.