Pilgrims survive thanks to Spirit

28 Jul 2008

By The Record

Pilgrims bound for Sydney at Perth Airport should have been grumpy, writes Sylvia Defendi. But a funny thing didn’t happen on the way to WYD…

The Cross and Icon of Our Lady arrives in Circular Quay on a Sydney Ferry ahead of World Youth Day Sydney 2008 on July 14, 2008 in Sydney. Photo: WYD08/Getty Images

It’s 2pm on Saturday afternoon and Perth Domestic Airport has just heaved with the collective sighs of over 100 stranded pilgrims. They, along with myself had been told that our noon plane was going to be delayed by another hour.
By that stage the seats had begun to annoy a good many and pilgrims wandered the area, got some shut-eye on the ground or initiated a championship round of UNO.
I thought of this planeload of pilgrims and of the lady at the hour-long check-in queue. She, like many others had been trying to get to Sydney for three days. “If this plane is cancelled,” she told me in a foreboding manner, “it will be the third one in a row.”
These people should be angry, I thought. They should be walking round in circles like lost sheep. They should be complaining to the front desk. They should be disgruntled. But they weren’t.
Instead they were finding ways to entertain themselves, were getting to know other pilgrims, many from other countries, and chatting eagerly about what they would experience once they landed in Sydney.
And that’s when I realised, that these where not businessmen and women who may be missing a conference, these were pilgrims and this was the pilgrim experience.
For them, this was the hardship they expected to face in order to proclaim and celebrate their faith with others.
This was the spirit of WYD that had been brewing manifesting itself in the domestic terminal.
It didn’t stop when we were told the plane would not depart until 4.30pm.
No one budged when the clock ticked toward 6pm. And when the call for passengers travelling on flight QF580 to Sydney sounded across the terminal to say that our flight had been cancelled, all the pilgrims wanted to do was line up for the fourth time that day to book another flight.
It was obvious that all they wanted to do was get to Sydney and be part of it all, no matter how long or tedious the journey.
Once in Sydney the ‘pilgrim experience’ did not die down. There were an abnormal number of youth scouring Sydney’s streets day and night and Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral was packed to capacity.
As I tried to find a spot to sit within the crowded cathedral, I found pilgrims young and old sitting on the cold marble floors, leaning on pillars and sitting on kneelers.
They should have been exhausted. They should have been cramped. They should have been grumpy. But they weren’t. Instead they were eagerly awaiting the words of the celebrant and honoured to be sharing this Mass with people from all over the world.
The cathedral shone with a similar youthful vibrancy as that of a packed concert event and yet somehow maintained the most traditional reverence.
The next day I walked to the Accreditation Centre where I was due to pick up my media pass. Over 300 people lined-up in a queue that wound its way outside the building and around the corner. Many more pilgrims waited in groups along the street for the queue to die-down.
Pilgrims, clergy and media waiting for accreditation should have been restless, sore from standing and nearing the end of their tether. But they weren’t.
Instead they were chatting and giggling among themselves, introducing themselves to strangers in line and competing among themselves to see who could chant the loudest.
Almost 15 New Zealanders dressed in ‘All Black’ chanted a prepared tune and cheered loudly to raise excitement.
Without warning a Portuguese group of 30 came down the street with banners and flags in hand chanting ‘Viva Benedetto.’ They even sang a Portuguese song in unison.
It was clear that the competition had started. Yet before anyone else could have a go, the New Zealanders had the crowds eating out of their hands with a private performance of the traditional Haka.
The line roared with excitement and in a typical scene everyone flicked out a mobile phone to tape the private show.
Having gained accreditation I left the queue in a hurry and raced down Pitt St where there was word of a procession to mark the end of the WYD Journey of the Cross and Icon. There at Belmore Park I caught-up with another 200 pilgrim youth queuing to have their chance to venerate the WYD symbols.
A handful of photographers, myself included, elbowed their way into the crowd, who were singing along to hymns that could be heard from the nearby city centre.
The pilgrims should have been disgruntled at our shoving, I thought.
They should have felt awkward when photographers flocked to them like seagulls when they noticed a pilgrim getting emotional. But they weren’t, because that was the ‘pilgrim experience.’