SYDNEY, Australia — People think of the Olympics as a world-unifying event, but it pales in comparison to World Youth Day.
It is estimated that about 96,000 people attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics, while more than 400,000 pilgrims trekked to World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia, in July, according to the WYD Web site.
The Diocese of Charleston contributed about 37 people to that number. Youth groups from Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island and St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken attended, along with a handful of individuals and chaperones, said Jerry White, director of the Youth and Young Adults Ministry Office.
They were but a drop in a sea of Christianity as over 170 nations came together.
Katlyn Gould said the meshing of countries and cultures that she had never seen before was the best part.
“I thought it was amazing. It was such a good trip,” she said. “The coolest part was going there and seeing so many people from different countries and how friendly they were.”
The 16-year-old from Precious Blood of Christ said the overnight vigil leading up to the final Mass stood out in her memory. Sleeping under the stars, listening to Pope Benedict XVI speak in a multitude of languages, and waking up with thousands of other Catholics was uplifting.
“Knowing that we were there for God and church, it was an incredibly safe feeling,” Gould said.
The vigil also stood out for Joan LaBone, St. Mary’s youth director. She said everyone was standing in the dark before the candlelight service, then the pope lit his candle and tipped the flame onto the candle of an Aborigine. From there the flame spread from person to person until everyone in the crowd was aglow, as if with the light of Christ.
“It was very spiritual,” LaBone said. “The sense of how universal our church is was overwhelming.”
White said he saw the one-church theme played out in other ways. During the vigil, all the countries were flying their flags, but one by one, they were taken down until everyone stood together, unified as a people of God.
For White, the best part of the event was the theatrical, live reenactment of the Stations of the Cross, which encompassed all of Sydney and the harbor.
“That was just awe-inspiring, all the work and detail that went into it,” he said.
Kate Bonnar, youth director at Precious Blood of Christ, said the trip was an incredible experience for the group. Because the crowds were smaller in Australia, everyone was able to see Pope Benedict up-close and personal on several occasions.
“We were really close to the Holy Father a couple of times. It was incredibly moving,” Bonnar said.
The groups also spent time sightseeing before World Youth Day began, and Gould said she was able to fulfill her dream of holding a Koala bear and petting a kangaroo.
The youths went snorkeling and scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, and traveled around the reef in a submersible vehicle. Another tourist stop was the mountain village of Kuranda, where they were surrounded by rainforest and immersed in Aboriginal culture.
Gould said one of the most peaceful moments of the whole trip was sitting at the edge of the mountain surrounded by the natural beauty of God.
“It was so relaxing to sit above the clouds, it was like you were flying,” she said.
The theme of World Youth Day was “You will receive the power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses” (Act 1:8).
White said the pope repeatedly called young people to be a witness to those who are without hope and are in darkness.
World Youth Day 2008 started on July 15, with an Opening Mass celebrated by Cardinal George Pell and the bishops of the world at Barangaroo in east Darling Harbour.
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Sydney Harbour on July 17 and received a Papal welcome at Barangaroo. He then traveled through the streets of Sydney via motorcade in the popemobile.
White said his group was at a catechesis event when a bishop announced that Pope Benedict was about to drive by, and everyone went outside to be close to the successor of St. Peter.
The Stations of the Cross were re-enacted on July 18, and the evening vigil was held July 19, leading to the final Mass on July 20 — World Youth Day. Pope Benedict presided over the largest gathering of people at Southern Cross Precinct in the history of Australia.
World Youth Day was established by Pope John Paul II in 1986 as a way to reach out to the youth of the world. He said he wanted to bring young Catholics together from around the globe to celebrate and learn about their faith.
The first World Youth Day was held in Rome in 1986 on Palm Sunday. Each year since, the event has been celebrated at a diocesan level on Palm Sunday. World Youth Day also has been held in Argentina, Spain, Poland, the United States, the Philippines, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and now Australia.