I’ve been home from my journey for almost a week, and I still cannot escape the profundity of the experience. While there were many and varied challenges at various points along the journey, I feel particularly blessed to have been part of the experience and the journey – for a whole variety of reasons.
First among these is that I managed to travel overseas. As I’ve already mentioned this was my first such experience, and I could think of no better way to take that first step then on pilgrimage and in the company of a wonderful band of fellow pilgrims – some of whom were neophytes like me, and others who were far more experienced in the challenges and opportunities of overseas travel. From this perspective alone I have had the opportunity to expand my horizons, and to experience things that until now only existed within my imagination. As I said to someone on my return I’ve got the itch now – I have a passport and I’m not afraid to use it!
The second source of blessing is that I have powerfully reminded that the Church is larger than the parish community that I have been called to serve. Amidst all the demands and challenges of daily life in a parish I believe that it is possible to forget that the Church exists beyond the boundaries of the parish. While we might from time to time connect to Church at a diocesan level – particularly when the Bishop is involved – most people relate to Church through their parish community, through the community that gathers on Sunday to celebrate and worship, and through the various agencies of the parish – including the parish school – that give day to day life to the community in which it is situated. Travelling to Spain for World Youth Day (re)opened my eyes to the larger reality of Church, to the people of faith from all around the world with whom I share the precious gift of faith but who don’t look like me, don’t speak like me, and who have different challenges and demands on their daily life. These too are the Church, and I have been blessed to experience firsthand the “bigger picture” of Church – something that I knew intellectually, but hadn’t yet experienced at the more profound “pilgrims on the journey” level.
You might wonder about that, particularly in light of the celebration of the last World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008. While it is true that I was involved in that experience – both here in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, and for one day in Sydney – it would seem to me that because I wasn’t a pilgrim per se (being rather involved in the provision of first aid during Days in the Diocese, and just merely wandering around on the day I went to Sydney) my experience of World Youth Day – and of the Church Universal – wasn’t the same as my experience in Madrid and in Spain. I guess in 2008 I was more involved in caring for those on pilgrimage rather than embracing the true nature of being a pilgrim, and while WYD2008 was certainly a powerful experience, it doesn’t compare to my experience of WYD2011, where I was in a different role and in a difference place both physically and personally.
The third source of blessing were the people of Spain, and in particular the people of Bejar among whom we celebrated Days in the Diocese. Their warmth and hospitality, their welcome and encouragement can only be described as humbling and life-giving. And this was true not only of the people of Bejar but of the Spanish in general who, despite their very flexible approach to time management and organisation, were warmly hospitable and sought to make the pilgrims’ experience of their beautiful and historic country. Despite the few little hiccups along the way, I came to enjoy Spain, and would love to go back – as a tourist! – and explore more of the country, meet more of the people, and encounter more of the history of this wonderfully warm country. I would in particular love to go back to Bejar and spend more time there among the people who welcomed this wandering pilgrim into their community and into their hearts.
The last, and greatest, source of blessing is to be found in the thirty other pilgrims with whom I shared this experience. Very few of us knew each other prior to embarking on this journey together, but by the end of our time together we were a family, with all the joys and challenges that brings along with it. There were days when there were difficulties and strains in relationships, there were days when the sense of shared joy among the group was palpable, and there was everything in between. So like a family that it wasn’t funny, but that made our shared experience all the richer. So for the record, I extend my thanks and my love to Sarah, Elroy, Emma, Samuel, James, Baden, Brock, Caity, Ryan, Liz, Harry, Aidan, Tania, Alex, Kylie, Annette, Ray, Marion, Kelly, Raelene, Terry, Lynette, Caprice, Lynda, Ally, Tamara and Larissa. And my special thanks, admiration and love to our group leaders, Sue, Brian and Bernadette without whom this journey would not have been possible nor come to fruition. Thank you all for being who you are, and for blessing me with your company.
As a last thought…I was asked by a parishioner just after I returned what I had gained from the experience of World Youth Day in Madrid. I was slightly taken aback – not because I couldn’t answer the question, but rather by the way it was phrased. There was an expectation on the part of the parishioner for me to be different than when I left, and to be able to provide a checklist of just exactly how I was different. Unfortunately God, and God’s Spirit, doesn’t work like that – they’re more interested in the long term than in the short term. I hope that parishioner is prepared to wait for months and years for the true rewards of my WYD 2011 experience to bear fruit. Until then, this pilgrim remains on the journey.