Australian pilgrims embark on journey of a lifetime, meeting even Pope Francis himself

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A young Australian World Youth Day pilgrim prays during Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Lisbon, Portugal, July 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

LISBON, Portugal (OSV News) — Australian youth came a long way to participate in World Youth Day in Lisbon. But it wasn’t just the length of the flight. They embarked on a true pilgrimage and made the most of it — with many of them visiting the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi on their way to Portugal, in what they say is a journey of a lifetime.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, who is leading the 600-youth delegation from his city, told OSV News that “pilgrimage is just generally a wonderful way of being Christian.”

“You know, God’s people have been on pilgrimage forever,” he said.

Rome and the Holy Land

Danielle D’Souza took the longest lap of the three possibilities the archdiocese presented to the young people. One was direct Melbourne-Lisbon, the second, “The Italian Way,” went through Rome and Assisi and the third — the longest — “In the Footsteps of Jesus,” through the Holy Land, where the youth landed on July 20.

“I’ve been wanting to go to World Youth Day since it was in Sydney in 2008, but I was 15 at the time, so I wasn’t allowed to go,” D’Souza told OSV News. “Then all the other World Youth Days just happened to be in my final years of study. … And I only just started a job last year, and I had to ask for leave. So I had to pray a lot. And obviously it was God’s plan for me, because my boss said it was okay.”

Australia pilgrims
Australian World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Lisbon, Portugal, July 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Since she arrived in the Holy Land with her group, prayer was something she appreciated the most.

“When you go in your tour group during your scheduled time, you don’t get a lot of time to pray there necessarily because there’s so many crowds moving through. They have to rush you. But on our pilgrimage, we’ve been really blessed to be staying close to the sites. I found that those were the highlights when we were going by ourselves and spending time there praying,” she said.

She said she also experienced hardships of the journey during the trip, including a 10-hour layover in Malta.

“We often have these schedule changes, and you feel a little grumpy at times. You’re like, ‘Oh, why is this happening?'” D’Souza said. “But in every one of those moments, God has given us a blessing. Like we tend to be grumpy, but then we see the fruit of whatever’s happened after, and we’re like, ‘oh, it’s a good thing … God made another way for us.'”

An unexpected meeting

Unplanned events are what makes every pilgrimage special, but the one in Rome was beyond special for the group on the “Italian Way.” On July 26, Archbishop Comensoli tweeted: “Sometimes things just happen. Our pilgrims in Rome just had an hour with Pope Francis. Just ourselves. Wow.”

“That was amazing … the week before we went, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just write.’ I didn’t expect at all to hear back from the Holy See, but I just said, ‘Well, we’re here. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could meet with the Holy Father,'” Archbishop Comensoli said.

“So simply, Pope Francis came into the room, said hello to everyone, and said: ‘You start asking me questions.’ That was it. And then for an hour or just slightly under an hour, he answered every question that was asked and the hands were going up all over the place,” the archbishop of Melbourne recalled.

Blake Fucile, who is one of the youngest in the Melbourne group, said it was an unforgettable moment.

“It was so cool when he walked in … my heart was beating really, really fast. Like, I couldn’t really believe it,” he told OSV News.

“It was just amazing when he walked in … just being so close to him,” he said, adding that “as a 15 year-old-boy … some people never get to see the pope in their life and to get up that close and personal … it was just … amazing.”

An impromptu conversation

What will stay with him forever is what the pope told them about young people’s vocation.

“He said … you don’t have to abandon everything behind and live a full religious life. But as long as you’re connected with God and Jesus and you pray that it will all be OK; like you can still believe in God if you pray consistently, you’ll be connected,” Fucile said.

The young people had so many questions that the pope couldn’t answer them all, Archbishop Comensoli said.

“I was particularly touched by the depth of the actual questions that our young people were asking,” he said. “You know, this wasn’t frivolous stuff or a bit of good humor. … I particularly remember the pope saying to one of our seminarians — (he) asked a question about seminary life — and he (the pope) just said, just be normal. Just be normal. So I now call him Norm,” Archbishop Comensoli said with a laugh.

Australian pilgrims
Australian World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Lisbon, Portugal, July 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

That is precisely what Jarod Griffin will remember of Pope Francis. Being normal.

“It wasn’t so much what he said, but just, you just sort of drawn in by his fatherliness,” Griffin said. “So everything that he says, you can see he’s so tender and every subject he talks about … you can see that he really cares about every single thing that he talks about. So I think that was the real thing that I took away from that.”

Griffin was baptized in 2021, and meeting the Holy Father left him speechless.

“I can’t explain it because — that is yes, he is the pope — but he is Peter as well,” he told OSV News.

Xavier Warmbrunn went with the group that was traveling directly to Lisbon from Melbourne.

“We spent a couple of days in Fatima, which was nice. That was sort of more of a quiet time of reflection. And then we came to Lisbon, and it’s like one massive party,” he said.

During World Youth Day, the streets of Lisbon, at any moment of the day and night, are filled with songs, dancing and young Catholics exchanging their cultures and backgrounds.

An encouragement for faith

For Warmbrunn, a 20-year-old university student, to see that so many people believe in Christ is a big encouragement for his faith.

“Well, I think the energy over here, everybody’s proud to be Catholic and back at home — I went to a Catholic high school, and there were 2,000 people there, and I’d say maybe 20 or 30 of them were actually practicing Catholics,” he told OSV News.

“And those people didn’t really want to be known. And you wouldn’t associate with the other Catholics necessarily,” he added.

D’Souza added: “We have … a global church. We have a young church … a vibrant church. Like there’s lots of people. And I think sometimes people don’t realize that.”

Numbers of youth pouring to Lisbon rise every day. At the welcome ceremony with Pope Francis on Aug. 3, 500,000 people were reported to attend.

“After I converted, you know, I started to have doubts because I thought I might be the only young person (that is Catholic),” Griffin said.

“So seeing this, it’s a complete contrast … seeing hundreds of thousands of young people, it’s amazing,” he reflected on his WYD experience.

Australia pilgrims
Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia, celebrates Mass for Australian World Youth Day pilgrims and others at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Lisbon, Portugal, July 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Asked what is the key to the evangelization of young people, Archbishop Comensoli told OSV News that he thought “there’s not one particular key. There’s a sense of one just traveling with a company … I think there is a deep importance of what the company is: learn and receive from the young people themselves.”

Archbishop Comensoli himself is responsible for 87 young leaders from his archdiocese during WYD in Lisbon. What he appreciates very much in terms of catechesis of the youth is “the conversations at breakfast time, the little snippets as you’re walking along, of someone sharing a little bit of what’s on their heart, the pointing out of things, the being in with the crowd, all these little moments,” he said.

Developing young leaders

Bridget Taylor, a young teacher and participant of the “Emerging Leaders” program of the pilgrimage, said that, “The program is about encouraging us to strengthen our faith, understand our (faith) and be able to lead young people who we work with, the students in their own journey, in their own Catholic journey.”

Archbishop Comensoli said that World Youth Day for him is very much about what happens when young people get back to their families, schools, universities and jobs.

“World Youth Day will do its thing. It does its magic and that’s terrific,” he said. “But it’s what’s done with that when we get home … as they move into whatever decisions they make around career and family and so on, vocational decisions, all of that matters.”

“It’s not about the souvenirs,” Fucile said. “I think it’s more about … I want to bring back the social skills to talk to lots of people. I want to bring back the gratitude. I want to be able to be grateful for a lot more things.”

Taylor underlined that she feels “that just like Mary and the theme of World Youth Day, we need to arise and go with haste. And as Mary is a female role model and myself as a female educator and teacher, I feel that that’s my responsibility to be that role model for the young people,” she said.

For Griffin, it’s important to “just to bring the fire, to bring that excitement that everyone has here with me and to sort of keep that fire going.”

“When I get home, I make sure that people are … excited for their faith,” he said. That “they love the pope, and they know that being a Catholic is awesome.”

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.