World Youth Day 2013 - A Pilgrim's Perspective

It’s like trench warfare as crowds of pilgrims - some 4 million - battle to keep hold of their little patch of sand on Copacabana Beach.

World Youth Day 2013 - A Pilgrim's Perspective

A maze of two-foot wide pathways weaves in and around the crowds - a result of the small sand trenches each group has built to mark their territory. Our group bravely fights its way through as we try to find some space on the beach several kilometres from the main stage. Our attempt is unsuccessful and we decide to retreat to the road. Fortunately - or perhaps not so fortunately - we secure a small space along the road. We recite the mantra, “We are pilgrims, not tourists”, and decide to drop our tarps. This is World Youth Day (WYD)…this is all part and parcel of the experience.


Our pilgrimage begins in Pilar, an area on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is here that we engage both physically and spiritually in mission work, a significant theme of WYD 2013. Our work is based in two places – a community centre that provides care and education for children, and a facility that cares for those with a mental health disability. The work includes freshening up well used classroom tables and chairs, installing large metal waste bins in and around the community centre and painting a few rooms. The reality of the locals’ plight leaves many of us uncomfortable, but the vibe amongst the group is positive and we carry out our work with great spirit. The mothers who run the community centre thank us with a delicious afternoon tea. And, reassure us the work we have done will make a difference to the lives of those who use the facility, day in and day out.


Following the joys and challenges of mission work, it’s time to retreat. The stunning backdrop of Iguazu Falls provides the perfect opportunity. We spend two days exploring the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the Iguazu Falls, a UNESCO world heritage site and natural wonder of the world. The grandeur and enormity of the falls are breathtaking. I venture out on a platform that takes me to the foot of the falls. I stand there with arms stretched wide as a barrage of wind-swept water soaks me head to toe. The wonder of God in nature overwhelms me.


As we arrive in Rio, I immediately feel the change of pace. We are no longer a group of just 28 people. We are part of something much bigger. Aussie Central, a series of warehouses on the port of Rio, is home to 1400 Aussies for WYD Week. It is very simple accommodation (mattresses on the ground), but it is home. As we venture out and about Rio for the major events of the week, it’s hard not to get caught up in the spirit of WYD. Pilgrims fill the streets - dancing, singing and praying on every corner. Our Aussie flags attract the attention of many pilgrims wishing to trade their own flags and other bits and pieces of memorabilia. We exchange goods, snap a quick photo with our new friends and then we’re off on our way to the next event for the day. 


Saturday arrives and it’s time to prepare for our pilgrimage walk to Copacabana Beach, the site of the overnight Vigil and final Mass. The walk is roughly 9km, winding its way through the city centre of Rio and emerging along the road to Copacabana Beach. The sheer number of pilgrims en route is mind blowing. This is going to be massive.


The atmosphere on Copacabana Beach is electric as the South Americans and Africans sing and dance through the night. We take turns to get food and drink throughout the evening, a thankfully easy experience given our location on one of the most popular beaches in the world. Finally, it’s time to sleep…well lie down at least, since I would hardly consider an asphalt road with a tarp for a blanket a suitable environment to sleep. Space is at a premium on our little patch of road. It’s like a game of Tetris, each of us finding the best configuration of arms and legs in order to fit on the tarps. Once again we recite the phrase, “We are pilgrims, not tourists.”  


Morning arrives and before we know it the crowds begin to rumble…Pope Francis is on his way. Our decision to sleep on the road had one major benefit, we now had front row seats as Pope Francis slowly but surely made his way down the road along Copacabana Beach. Pope Francis turns and waves in our direction and passes our group. The crowd goes wild.


The final Mass commences and a hush falls over the crowd. We switch on our radios for the English translation of the Mass and watch the nearby screen to follow what’s going on several kilometres up the beach. Pope Francis goes on to speak to us, urging the young people gathered to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (WYD 2013 theme, Matt 28:16). He assures each one of us, “Jesus Christ is counting on you! The Church is counting on you! The Pope is counting on you!”


Following the “high” experience of WYD, it was once again time to relax and reflect. Hot showers, good food and sunshine were a welcome change from the experiences of Rio. Individually and together we reflected on our pilgrimage. In particular we were asked to reflect on what we had each gained from our pilgrimage experience and what God was asking of us. How would we “go and make disciples”?


Our pilgrim journey had come to an end, but in a way the journey was just beginning. New seeds of faith had been planted, new friendships had formed, and new opportunities awaited as we arrived back on Aussie soil.


Special thanks to Elroy Aguiar for this article and attached image. Elroy is a member of the Diocesan Council for Ministry with Young People (DCMYP).


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