By Dan McAloon (CNS) – The pilgrims travelled from 170 countries to what Pope Benedict XVI
called the "Great South Land of the Holy Spirit." For many, Sydney may
well have seemed like evangelizing to "the ends of the earth."
They came, nonetheless, filling the streets and charming the locals with their vitality and purpose. They even changed the tone of the local media, which had insisted the high cost of airfares and the distance would keep them away from World Youth Day in Sydney.
On July 19 they gathered — more than 220,000 of them — to pray with the pope, party and sleep under the stars.
As the vigil wore on, the pilgrims divided themselves into two distinct groups — the exuberant music-making kind and the utterly exhausted. For many, the nine-mile pilgrimage with a full backpack and bedroll from MacKillop Chapel in north Sydney had taken its toll. As others reveled, whole sections quietly folded themselves into their sleeping bags and retired to sleep — the only thing missing on their lumpy outlines was a "Do Not Disturb" sign.
Alessia Bacacco, 36, a journalist and TV producer from Pax TV, Lima, Peru, was at the vigil to record the atmosphere and snatch interviews with the 200 Peruvian pilgrims she had followed. Pax is a commercial-free 24-hour TV channel broadcasting Catholic teachings. It was founded in Lima in 2002 by a diocesan priest, Father Roberto Padros.
"Our programs really talk to the family, with different shows for mothers, fathers and youth," said Bacacco. "In Sydney we’ve been recording material we’ll edit into short clips that we’ll use in programming."
A veteran of the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, she said the sprawling nature of Sydney made for a different kind of pilgrim experience.
"Cologne was more centralized; Sydney has been about experiencing the Australian character in a larger space. I’ve noticed that it’s quieter here, as if the pilgrims can reflect a little deeper than at Cologne," she said.
She praised the Sydney organizers for the smooth operations of the celebrations and for accommodating so many and moving them efficiently to the different venues.
An hour-and-a-half before Pope Benedict’s arrival for the closing Mass, brothers Rich and Paul Warchuck were sitting on their sleeping bags recovering from the coldness of their Randwick sleep-out.
"The coldness surprised me," said Rich Warchuck, referring to the overnight low of 47 F. "Coming straight from a Detroit summer where we were sweltering in the 90s, it’s taken a lot of adjustment."
He said he did not sleep much until "about 2 a.m. when the drumming stopped. You could hear a kind of collective sigh descend over the whole place after that."
The Warchucks were among 700 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Detroit. Rich, 30, had attended four other World Youth Day celebrations and, despite the cost, he insisted he pay for his brother’s airfare to Sydney.
"It was an opportunity for us to see Australia, but also I wanted Paul to get this enjoyment in celebrating our Catholic faith with so many from around the world," he said. "It’s a wonderful expression of universal church for younger people."
Paul, 22, said seeing the commitment of other Catholic youths made him "feel better about the future."
"All these young people really are the future of our church. We’re believing in God in this world and taking that one idea home as inspiration. It’s a feeling I hope I can keep with me forever," he added.
Detroit team leader Nikki Zakrezewski, 38, said the organization for Sydney’s World Youth Day was probably the best she had seen.
"The transportation and organization, the helpful volunteers — it was all very friendly and ran to plan. We loved it," she said.
At the candlelight vigil with Pope Benedict, Amber Herrara Veliz, 28, of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, said the 220 pilgrims from her country came "to find hope in this world."
"It’s been an excellent experience together with all these people," she said. "The people of Sydney received us with generosity. They are friendly but shy; (with us) not speaking much English, it was mostly about them smiling and us waving. I loved it."
The group stayed with families in Maitland and Newcastle during the Days in the Dioceses program.
"Very, very nice people," said Julieth Zerega, 35, the Venezuelan team leader. She said she felt "renovated in my faith."
Traveling from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Moraima Hernandez, 16, was one of a group of 800 that included pilgrims from San Juan and Arroyo.
She said her group worked for two years to finance their trip. Fundraisers included concerts, game nights, and a weekly market food stall. But to get to Sydney, she still had to take out a loan to make the $5,000 airfare.
"I have no regrets. I want to grow up in my faith. There’s a part of me I want to change. I want to know me and find out who I am. I want to be more faithful.
"In my country, people lose their faith in the face of so many political problems," she said. "I want to be one of the ones who will bring the people back to the church."
Sydney was Moraima’s first World Youth Day, "but not last," she said. She described the camaraderie of the Latin American countries she encountered at the vigil concert.
"We were five singing in a group last night" and joined pilgrims from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Mexico. "Soon the circle was very big indeed."
She said found the different dialects "a little confusing."
"But what comes from the heart is that all believe as one in Jesus Our Lord — that’s the amazing thing about World Youth Day," she said.