In April, Perth WYD officer Matt Hodgson attended the World Apostolic Congress On Mercy, took copious notes and photos and reported back to The Record.
Here are the fruits of his labours.
It was little over a year ago in April 2007 when I first learnt about the extraordinary visions of St Maria Faustina Kowalska and it came at just the right time for me.
I was a baptised Catholic desperately seeking some answers about my faith.
Having just spent a year living with a Protestant minister in Sydney, one of the most amazing men I have ever met, I was seriously confused on matters of grace and justification.
Several times he challenged me with the big question: What do you say to God when you stand before him at the end of your life? It took him several attempts before he got the answer he was looking for: Jesus Christ was my Lord and Saviour!
So I was saved! Great … but where did that leave the Sacraments?
Why do I need to go to Confession? Why do I need to go Mass? These were questions that I grappled with intensely over about a six-month period.
Fortunately, I was in safe hands. Having been selected to take part in a three-month World Youth Day Youth Leaders Formation Course in Sydney, I was in the pastoral care of some of the best people the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney had to offer.
After realising the crucial importance of regular Confession and Mass in the path to holiness, the course chaplain led me through my first confession since my first reception of the Sacrament when I was in primary school (a drought of 15 years). Words cannot express the joy of knowing that you are back in full communion with your Creator.
This was just the beginning of an extraordinary journey. The grace received during that Confession was fully revealed two weeks later on Divine Mercy Sunday (the second Sunday of Easter), when I experienced a physical healing. Looking back, I am not surprised that healing occurred on a physical level, because the spiritual healing which took place during that time was immense.
Armed with a renewed vigour for the Catholic faith and a killer testimony, I embarked on an epic six-week pilgrimage to nearly all the holy Catholic sites in Europe.
The primary reason for the trip was to promote World Youth Day to the 500,000 young people that descended on Loreto for the Agora conference in September.
Apart from a guest spot on the conference main stage itself, I also spent some time promoting WYD in other Italian dioceses. One of these dioceses was Jesi and I will never forget what happened on my afternoon in that diocese. I was scheduled to share my testimony to 1000 young people taking part in a diocesan gathering in preparation for Agora.
In the frantic half-hour before the start of the afternoon’s program, we were having trouble finding a suitable translator for me. Somehow it was decided that the priest who I was staying with was the right person for the job.
I proceeded to go through my testimony with him, so that his job was easier when we went on stage.
At the end of my sharing about my experience on Divine Mercy Sunday, he turned to me and said “these same things happened to me as well; it was how I found my vocation.”
I couldn’t believe it – I had travelled half way around the world and yet somehow ended up in the same house as a man who had been touched in the same way by the message of Divine Mercy. A personal handshake and thank you from the Bishop of Jesi topped the day off nicely: “Thank you so much for sharing your story Matthew; people just don’t know about Divine Mercy here.” To be fair to the Church in Jesi, the Divine Mercy message is a relatively new addition to the treasures that exist within the Catholic Church. It has only become part of mainstream Catholicism since Servant of God John Paul II canonised Sister Maria Faustina in 2000 and declared on that same day that the Second Sunday of Easter would now be known as Divine Mercy Sunday.
This year has proved to be another watershed year in the spread of the Divine Mercy message.
The inaugural World Apostolic Congress on Mercy (WACOM) took place in Rome from April 2-6 and I was fortunate enough to be one of the many thousands of people from around the world to attend. Before the conference even started there was a buzz in the air in Rome.
I remember picking up my registration pack at St John Lateran Basilica the day before the conference started and was greeted by a young journalist named Caroline from Germany. At first she asked me what was contained in my pack, but it became apparent that she was more interested in finding out why a 24-year old from Perth, Australia would travel 20 hours by plane to attend a religious conference for a handful of days. I just smiled at her and told her about the special place that Divine Mercy held in my heart.
The next day was a very special day, April 2: the third anniversary of death of Servant of God John Paul II, who died on the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy in 2005.
He was a great apostle of Divine Mercy and it was fitting that his anniversary of death should be part of the schedule of the inaugural World Divine Mercy Congress.
To celebrate the occasion, a Papal Mass took place in St Peter’s Square.
Now I have been to a Papal Mass before, but there was something very special about this one. I don’t know whether it was the occasion or the fact that I was in the third row, but the anticipation was palpable.
The liturgy didn’t disappoint either, with the successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, offering the Body of Christ in the presence of thousands of the faithful from all corners of the globe. Priceless!
The bus ride back to my accommodation afterwards provided some light entertainment, when a pair of sisters from St Faustina’s congregation hopped on the bus with me. Their habits are such a great public witness and because of their association with St Faustina, they just have the aura of Divine Mercy around them.
One of the passengers on the bus was a charismatic priest from the US who was attending the conference with his mother and the banter on the bus with the sisters was just great. He just wouldn’t stop talking about his mission and how desperately he wanted to see the original diary of St Faustina. The whole time, his mother was just rolling her eyes in embarrassment over her excitable son.
Once the regular routine of the congress had commenced, the most striking aspect of each day was the international Mass that all participants celebrated together. The Liturgy of the Eucharist was in Latin each day and it was an extraordinary experience of unity, as just about every country on the planet was represented and yet we could all follow the liturgy in this universal language of the Church.
The use of Latin within the Liturgy is a contentious issue, but after experiencing this, I reckon we would all do well to experience its profundity on an international scale before passing our judgment on its use in the Church of the 21st century.
Apart from the unity derived from the Mass proceedings, there was a great sense of camaraderie. The people that I sat next to during the morning session and Mass of each day practically became my best friends for those few hours.
Although we often couldn’t speak the same language, there was always the opportunity for photos and a smile as we went our separate ways at the end of Mass.
The keynote speaker on each day was a Cardinal, but the speaker who stole the show was a young Rwandan woman named Immaculée Ilibagiza who shared her testimony about what happened to her during the Rwandan Genocide Memorial.
She was among a group of young people hidden in a confined backroom when the genocide started. Most of them thought they would only be kept there for a few days, but time rolled on and it became clear that this room was going to be their home for a long time. Their fear reached a high point when rebels broke into the house and began searching the rooms for people.
It was at this point that Immaculée realised that God was her only hope. She started to pray like she had never done before and her intercession must have worked, as the room where she was held captive was just about the only one that wasn’t searched.
After this experience of God’s presence, she decided to pray more earnestly as part of her daily routine. She spent the daylight hours reciting the Rosary and during the evenings she started praying a prayer she learnt from a friend earlier in life: the Divine Mercy Chaplet. A normal evening consisted of 40 chaplets and it became clear later on that she needed the grace from every single one of them.
After three months, Immaculée was finally allowed to come out of captivity. But the world that she re-entered was not like the one she remembered. The genocide had turned her town into a morgue and there were dead bodies everywhere. Animals prowled the scene, picking at the bodies of the deceased. But the worst news was yet to come: all of her family had been killed; mother, father, brothers and sisters. She could hardly speak at this point of her testimony. There was not a dry eye in the packed-out St John Lateran Basilica. I too could not stop the tears welling up in my eyes.
Summoning up the courage to continue, she proceeded with the most remarkable part of her story. The man responsible for the killings of her family members had been captured and Immaculée had the opportunity to meet with him. One can imagine the various thoughts that would have gone through her mind at the time.
But what followed was a miracle of mercy: she forgave him! This action stunned the guard present on the scene and indeed stunned everyone who had gathered to hear her testimony. This was truly an example of the transforming nature of Divine Mercy. A two-minute standing ovation followed her testimony and it was probably the pinnacle of the three-day presentation schedule.
It also heightened my anticipation for the arrival in Perth of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon, as the Rwandan Genocide Memorial is one of the many significant places where these WYD symbols have made an impact on the lives of young people like Immaculée.
The inaugural WACOM was not all about testimonies and presentations inside a Church building; but rather we received the knowledge and blessings in the morning and then put them into practice in the afternoons/evenings.
With congress convenor, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, leading the way, we took the message of Divine Mercy on to the streets of Rome. As an English speaker, I was stationed outside the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs. Together with my street evangelisation partner, Joan from Chicago, we roamed the streets around the Basilica inviting people in for Eucharistic adoration and offering to pray for those who did not want to venture into the Church. The response we received wasn’t too bad, considering that we couldn’t speak a word of Italian between us. That afternoon was a major step outside of my comfort zone and yet I found it hard to hold back a smile, as the whole situation was quite bizarre. This afternoon was just the beginning of the missionary aspect of the Congress.
Each night the participants descended on Piazza Navona, the heart of Rome, for evangelisation activities.
The first night was an evangelisation show performed by the Cenacolo Community. It was a spectacular stage-show of the life of Jesus Christ.
The following night was an opportunity for testimonies and music, all building towards the final night when the Blessed Sacrament was solemnly exposed in the middle of Piazza Navona, surrounded by local cafes.
Every knee hit the ground when Our Lord (in the Blessed Sacrament) first appeared from inside a nearby Church. It was truly a blessed experience. I can vividly remember the face of a young Italian man who walked past me on the night and asked “Che Cosa?” (“What’s that?”)
At the conclusion of the Congress, I never would have guessed that the mercy I am obliged to show as a Christian would be tested so soon afterwards.
Upon arriving at Rome airport at 5.15am, my flight to London had been delayed until 12.30pm, so I would miss two connecting flights and arrive back in Perth two days later, the very same morning I was due back at work.
I had every right to be furious at the airline involved, but on the back of WACOM, any feelings of anger washed straight over me. In the light of the incomprehensible mercy shown by our Heavenly Father towards me, it was not a big ask to present a smile to the poor fellow who had the unenviable task of re-issuing customer tickets.
This mercy was rewarded only 12 hours later, when I was able to use my six-hour stop in London to visit Westminster Cathedral and attend a beautiful High Mass on the main altar. What an unexpected end to an awesome week.