Twenty-four hours worth of flights and a 12-hour layover in Vancouver, Canada, is what stood in between us and Sydney. However, the daunting travel experience actually strengthened the group and allowed for deep friendships to be formed, stories to be shared of previous WYD experiences and provided time for personal and group prayer opportunities.
We arrived in Sydney early in the morning on July 14. The month of July is part of Australia's winter, so it was chilly and overcast. Everyone was tired and a bit grouchy, but once we exited the airport in the midst of thousands of other pilgrims from across the world, our spirits skyrocketed.
After we settled into our hostel in the heart of Sydney, we went straight to Saint Mary's Cathedral to thank Mary for her protection on our journey and to ask God for guidance in our spiritual lives. We did some sightseeing-the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. As we walked the streets, we were surrounded by thousands of young adults from various countries, who like us, were smiling, singing, and excited to be part of WYD.
The week began with the opening Mass on Tuesday evening celebrated by George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. Over 150,000 people were present at this joyous celebration. Flags from all different countries were waved high and proud. This commencement called to our attention the beautiful diversity that is present in the Catholic faith today.
The next three days consisted of catechetical sessions in the morning. We took an hourlong train ride to a parish in the suburbs, where we had Mass and a Catholic teaching lead by Bishops from India, Australia, and New Zealand. During the afternoons there were various events coordinated by WYD, including guest speakers, singing performances, cultural festivals, vocation fairs and all day adoration.
Thursday afternoon, Pope Benedict arrived in Sydney, touring the city in his famous pope mobile. Fortunately for us, we found an opening along his route and he drove by us; a mere five feet away. In being so close, we were able to notice something about the pope-his face showed that he was just as thrilled and eager to be in Sydney as we were.
Friday afternoon we witnessed a live reenactment of the Stations of the Cross. The stations were spread out throughout the city and displayed on large screens for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to witness. This was a moving portrayal of the passion and death of Jesus and served as a reminder to all pilgrims of Jesus' sacrifice and how we are all called to follow Him.
As the week was drawing to a close, all of the WYD pilgrims and many of Sydney's residents congregated at the Randwick Racetrack for an overnight campout. Nearly 500,000 people were in attendance at the racetrack for an evening vigil and closing Mass. The pope spoke of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how we must open ourselves up to receive those gifts.
As we were leaving Sydney, we were physically tired from the early mornings, late nights and miles of walking; yet we were alive-mentally and spiritually-and ready to conquer the world for Christ. We had learned our mission and we returned home to proclaim the Good News.
God had done his part: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you". Now it was our turn to complete the deal: "And you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).
(Editor's note: Guest author Ryan Phelan is an alumnus of Temple University, Class of 2006. He has worked with the Salesians of Don Bosco as the Associate Director of Youth Ministry, South Orange, during the last two years and served as the group leader for the WYD journey to Australia. This was Phelan's second WYD event; he also traveled to Cologne, Germany, in 2005.)