By ks. Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The unknown continent’s Portuguese discoverer called her, “La Australia de Espiritu Santo” (The Great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit). In July of 2008, the modern city of Sydney hosted the XXIII World Youth Day Celebrations.
At the close of WYD in Cologne in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Sydney, Australia, would be the site of the next world youth encounter; fttingly, its theme would be: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. Yet the sad fact is that despite the nation’s great wealth, the spiritual desolation of Australian society is deepening. The number of people who are rich but unhappy is increasing. Surrounded by material goods, many languish in great spiritual poverty. A sense of inner emptiness, nameless fear, and futility marks their lives. It is the great misfortune of those who have discarded the greatest of spiritual treasures — living faith in God. Widespread rejection of religious practice, neglect of the Ten Commandments and moral norms, living life as if God did not exist — all this has resulted in the wealthy nation of Australia having (according to official government figures) the third largest youth suicide rate in the world. Only 49% of Australian couples bother to get married. The number of divorces and separations is on a steady rise. The general decline of morals and the crisis of marriage are linked with yet another grim statistic — 22,000 homeless youth between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Drug addiction is rampant, and crime is rising at an alarming rate.
The arrival of the Holy Father Benedict XVI along with hundreds of thousands of joyous young people from around the world, all of them brimming with enthusiastic faith, was indeed a great spiritual boost to Sydney and the whole of Australia — a sign that only Christ, who lives and teaches in His Church, is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Joined together in prayer, the youth and the Pope demonstrated to the Sydneyites the great power of God’s Spirit. These young people radiated the joy of their faith and the purity of their hearts, which spring from our union with Jesus in prayer and the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. The Holy Father’s message, enlivened by the example of the youth gathered around him, is a message intended for the whole world. Only with the One Triune God whom Jesus Christ revealed to us through His Church can we find the eternal joy we seek. God is the source of love that conquers evil and death. He gives Himself to us as Love Incarnate in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The love of God is the Holy Spirit. In order to receive this gift daily and to enjoy life and love in the here and now, that is, to share in the Trinitarian life of God, we must pray with faith, partake of the Sacraments, and shape our lives and conduct in total obedience to Gospels.
World Youth Day 2008 turned Sydney into an extraordinary place of prayer for hundreds of thousands of people; as a result, the power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed throughout the city
Close to 500,000 people from Australia and 170 other countries took part in the meetings with the Holy Father in Sydney. Catechetical sessions were conducted in twenty-nine language groups in 235 locations, including the Opera House and the Exhibition Centre. Here, too, as well as in many other specially prepared locations the pilgrims could attend daily Mass, make their confession, and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. The organizers of the event chose ten patrons: Blessed Mary MacKillop, the only Australian to be beatified, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Faustina Kowalska, Saint Maria Goretti, who sacrificed her life in the defense of purity, Saint Peter Chanel, Blessed Peter To Rot, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Paul II, and Our Lady of the Southern Cross — Help of Christians. The body of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, which had been flown in from Turin, rested in St. Mary’s Cathedral for the duration of the event, thus giving the young pilgrims the opportunity of praying before his relics. Sixty-three years after his death his body remains intact, spared of the process of decomposition. Here, indeed, was an extraordinary sign calling all to conversion!
Take God’s hand!
The twenty-third WYD event began on Tuesday, July 15, at the harbor site of Barangaroo in Sydney with an inaugural Holy Mass presided over by Cardinal George Pell. In his homily, the Australian Cardinal reminded his listeners that Jesus never abandons his people — least of all when they abandon Him. He calls to Himself all those enslaved to sin and addiction, for He desires to free and heal everyone. The chief cause of human suffering, stressed the Cardinal, is our abandonment of Christ, for then the way is open for drug abuse, alcoholism, family breakdown, and sexual promiscuity, which in turn lead to physical and spiritual death. As long as we live on this earth, there is always the chance of returning to Jesus and healing. We need only to take God’s hand with a child’s trust and He will do the rest. Trust is the key. God will not fail us. Cardinal Pell went on to explain to the youth that “following Christ is not easy, because it requires struggling against what St. Paul calls ‘the flesh,’ our fat relentless egos, old-fashioned selfishness. It is always a battle….To be a disciple of Jesus requires discipline, especially self-discipline; what Paul calls ‘self-control.’ Acquiring self-control is necessary to develop and protect the love in our hearts….We are called to open our hearts to the power of the Spirit. And to the young ones I give a gentle reminder that in your enthusiasm and excitement you do not forget to listen and pray!”
Where should we seek truth, goodness and beauty?
Thursday afternoon saw the long-awaited official welcome of Pope Benedict XVI. The Holy Father sailed six nautical miles in breezy but sunny weather. Accompanying the papal ship were twelve smaller vessels carrying 1200 young pilgrims and members of the press. Greeted by the young people’s enthusiastic shouts and applause, the Pope’s ship docked at Barangaroo, where the evening’s meeting between the youth and the Holy Father was to take place.
After the welcoming ceremony and opening prayers the Holy Father appealed to all those who live on the margins of parish and Church life, including non-Catholics and non-Christians: “Step forward into Christ’s loving embrace; recognize the Church as your home. No one need remain on the outside, for from the day of Pentecost the Church has been one and universal.” Benedict also turned to the sick, the handicapped, and the alienated. “Jesus is close to you!” he affirmed. “Feel his healing embrace, his compassion, and mercy!” And he warned: “In our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison, which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created. Examples abound, as you yourselves know. Among the more prevalent are alcohol and drug abuse, and the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation, often presented through television and the Internet as entertainment. I ask myself, could anyone standing face to face with people actually suffering violence and sexual exploitation call these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, mere ‘entertainment’?”
Human life was not governed by blind chance, stated the Holy Father. God has given men and women a clear purpose in life: that of seeking and finding truth, goodness, and beauty. In making our concrete day-to-day choices, we cannot forget this lofty goal of human existence. Only in union with Christ can we find truth, goodness, beauty, happiness, and joy. Again the Holy Father warned: “Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market...where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.”
Only Christ offered us what we needed in order to be happy, for He had given us His own life; and the “entrance to this life, to the Christian way,” the Holy Father observed, was Baptism. He went on to remind his audience of the great treasure possessed by those who are baptized: “On the day of your Baptism, God drew you into his holiness (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). You were adopted as a son or daughter of the Father. You were incorporated into Christ. You were made a dwelling place of his Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19).” This precious treasure, which was the life of God, would grow in us and transform us only when we allowed ourselves to be molded by the Holy Spirit through daily prayer and the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
I set before you life or death!
The WYD highlight of Friday, July 18 was the Way of the Cross staged on the streets of Sydney in the form of a three-hour-long re-enactment of Christ’s Passion. Eighty actors in specially prepared costumes took part in the production. From an artistic point of view it was a fascinating spectacle, bringing home to spectators the realization that in His passion and death Jesus took upon Himself the world’s evil, the sins and sufferings of all people, and by His Resurrection achieved the ultimate victory over evil. The staggering mystery of our salvation is always present at each Holy Mass. Giant screens erected in various locations around Sydney enabled the residents to take part in this event. At the eleventh station depicting Christ’s crucifixion the sun began to dip toward the horizon; and, at the twelfth, it fell completely dark.
After the Stations of the Cross, Benedict XVI drove to the University of Notre Dame in Darlinghurst to meet with youth who had run afoul of the law and were in the process of rehabilitation.
The Holy Father asked his audience what it really meant to live life to the full. He cited the Holy Scriptures: “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him — for in this your life consists” (Dt 30:19-20). The Holy Father explained that “false gods are nearly always associated with the worship of three things: material possessions, possessive love, or power.” He said: “Material possessions, in themselves, are good…Yet if we are greedy, if we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, then we make our possessions into a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries and we can! But this is to make possessions into a false god. Instead of bringing life, they bring death.
“Authentic love is obviously something good. Without it, life would hardly be worth living. It fulfils our deepest need, and when we love, we become most fully ourselves, most fully human. But how easily it can be made into a false god! People often think they are being loving when actually they are being possessive or manipulative. People sometimes treat others as objects to satisfy their own needs rather than as persons to be loved and cherished. How easy it is to be deceived by the many voices in our society that advocate a permissive approach to sexuality, without regard for modesty, self-respect, or the moral values that bring quality to human relationships! This is worship of a false god. Instead of bringing life, it brings death.
“The power God has given us to shape the world around us is obviously something good. Used properly and responsibly, it enables us to transform people’s lives. Every community needs good leaders. Yet how tempting it can be to grasp at power for its own sake, to seek to dominate others or to exploit the natural environment for selfish purposes! This is to make power into a false god. Instead of bringing life, it brings death.
“The cult of material possessions, the cult of possessive love and the cult of power often lead people to attempt to ‘play God’: to try to seize total control, with no regard for the wisdom or the commandments that God has made known to us. This is the path that leads towards death. By contrast, worship of the one true God means recognizing in him the source of all goodness, entrusting ourselves to him, opening ourselves to the healing power of his grace and obeying his commandments: that is the way to choose life.”
In concluding his address, the Holy Father encouraged those present to throw themselves like the prodigal son into the loving arms of Jesus, who offered them forgiveness and unconditional love, since it was only in loving friendship with Him that we would find joy and the fullness of life.
Allow yourselves to be shaped by His gifts!
In the early hours of Saturday morning, large groups of young pilgrims began marching across Sydney from various locations toward Randwick Racecourse for the vigil with the Pope. They were joined by thousands of young Australians, who until now had viewed the celebrations with varying degrees of skepticism. No longer could they resist being swept up by the tide of pious fervor generated by their peers.
Seven stopping places marked the way to Randwick. Here the pilgrims could contemplate the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Bright-colored national flags and banners from all corners of the world fluttered over the countless throngs of pilgrims. At noon began the nearly six-hour-long Youth Festival, culminating in the vigil with the Pope before the Blessed Sacrament. Under an imposing background of star-studded skies and the visible constellation of the Southern Cross, hundreds of thousands of young people, holding lighted candles, gathered around the WYD cross and the icon of Mary to listen intently to the words of the Holy Father.
Benedict XVI recalled the promise Christ gave us before His ascension into heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” And he reminded his listeners of the great mandate that we “be [His] witnesses throughout the world” (Acts 1:8). At the same time Benedict XVI warned against the temptation to reject the institutional structure of the Church. “To separate the Holy Spirit from Christ present in the Church’s institutional structure would compromise the unity of the Christian community, which is precisely the Spirit’s gift! It would betray the nature of the Church as the living temple of the Holy Spirit” (cf. 1 Cor 3:16). The Universal Church, then, is a great gift to all of humanity, for she is Christ’s union with us sinners. In this union, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus frees us from our enslavement to sin, heals the most painful spiritual wounds, and makes saints of the greatest sinners.
The Holy Father went on to observe that it was the Holy Spirit who “sustains the Church in union with the Lord and in fidelity to the apostolic Tradition. He inspired the Sacred Scriptures and he guides God’s People into the fullness of truth (cf. Jn 16:13). In all these ways the Spirit is the ‘giver of life,’ leading us into the very heart of God. So, the more we allow the Spirit to direct us, the more perfect will be our configuration to Christ and the deeper our immersion in the life of the Triune God….To turn away from him is only a futile attempt to escape from ourselves (cf. Saint Augustine, Confessions VIII, 7). God is with us not in our fantasy but in the realities of our lives! We seek to embrace reality, not escape from it. Let us strive to look it in the face! So the Holy Spirit gently but surely steers us back to what is real, what is lasting, what is true. It is the Spirit who leads us back into the communion of the Blessed Trinity!...Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: he is the artisan of God’s works. Let his gifts shape you!…Let your faith mature through you studies, work, sport, music and art. Let it be sustained by prayer and nurtured by the sacraments, and thus be a source of inspiration and help to those around you. In the end, life is not about accumulation. It is much more than success. To be truly alive is to be transformed from within, to be open to the power of God’s love. In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations. Set free the gifts! Let wisdom, courage, awe and reverence be the marks of greatness!”
After the prayer vigil with the Pope, the young people settled down to sleep under the stars. Many stayed up all night, prolonging their companionship. It was cold; the temperature fell below zero degrees. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament continued throughout the night in large tents pitched around the wide-open areas of the racecourse; even so it was hard to find a free spot. The Sacrament of Penance was made available to all, and many young people took advantage of the opportunity. After years of estrangement from the Church, they made their confession with tears in their eyes. Undoubtedly these were the greatest miracles that took place in Sydney during World Youth Day 2008.
“The Holy Spirit shall come down upon you and you will receive his power”
Toward daybreak the inhabitants of Sydney began arriving at the racecourse. 400,000 people took part in the closing Sunday Mass — the greatest gathering in the history of Australia. After Morning Prayer, in preparation for Holy Mass, Australian artists Guy Sebastian and Paulini sang a medley of songs.
After welcoming the Holy Father enthusiastically, the crowd settled down to pray the Mass. Benedict XVI prayed for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembly, that He might change the hearts of all, unite them more fully to Jesus and His Church, and send them forth to proclaim Christ to the world.
The Holy Father reminded the crowd that, “at each Mass…the Holy Spirit descends anew…to transform our lives, to make us, in his power, ‘one body, one spirit in Christ.’” The Holy Spirit was the source of new life in God, he said. It was “the soul of the Church, the love which binds us to the Lord and one another.” The power of the Holy Spirit could only be received as a pure gift, without any personal merit. We had to consent to receive it and allow it to change us from within. “We have to let it break through the hard crust of our indifference, our spiritual weariness, our blind conformity to the spirit of this age. Only then can we let it ignite our imagination and shape our deepest desires. That is why prayer is so important: daily prayer, private prayer in the quiet of our hearts and before the Blessed Sacrament, and liturgical prayer in the heart of the Church. Prayer is pure receptivity to God’s grace, love in action, communion with the Spirit who dwells within us, leading us, through Jesus, in the Church, to our heavenly Father. In the power of his Spirit, Jesus is always present in our hearts, quietly waiting for us to be still with him, to hear his voice, to abide in his love, and to receive ‘power from on high,’ enabling us to be salt and light for our world.”
The Holy Father appealed to the youth to “help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished — not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed,” in which “love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty.” To build a world in which “hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships…The world needs this renewal!” Only the power of the Holy Spirit could create a new world and ‘renew the face of the earth’ (cf. Ps 104, 30).
The Holy Father also called for the courageous acceptance of the gift of the vocation to the priesthood and the religious life: “I address this plea in a special way to those of you whom the Lord is calling to the priesthood and the consecrated life. Do not be afraid to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others!”
Finally, before the final blessing, the Holy Father announced that the next WYD would take place in 2011 in Madrid. WYD 2008 was now history, but the transformation wrought in people’s hearts by the power of God’s love would bear fruit by spreading good and love throughout Australia and the world. Even before WYD closed, this good fruit had already been noted by Andrew Scipione, Chief of Police of the State of New South Wales. Sydney’s crime rate during WYD had been the lowest in living memory, he reported. He attributed this fact to the presence of the pilgrims and to the general “mood of spirituality” in the community.
Fr. Mieczyslaw Piotrowski SChr (translated by Alicja Kozlowska).
Published in February 2012.