Festival a fantastic first

I joined a group of over 200 young people from the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle to join up with 20,000 Catholic youths from across Australia for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) held last December.

In the new year, as I recall the highlight of my first-ever ACYF, what stands out most is that it was an event of grand proportions that gave Catholic youth the opportunity to ask questions relating to their faith and investigate the infinite possibilities to broaden their relationship with God.

These are my impressions of that event.

As our coach pulled into the Sydney Showgrounds the vibe was electric. Thousands of kids from across the country filled the open spaces near and around ANZ stadium bursting from countless buses with big smiles on their faces and excitement in their eyes. Soon the place was buzzing like a beehive, reflecting the vitality which is the hallmark of the Year of Youth.

Festivities began inside a crowded Qudos Bank Arena for the Opening Plenary featuring Anthony Fisher OP of the Archdiocese of Sydney. He presented the year’s theme which is ‘New Horizons for Spreading Joy’ and advised all present that “your faith has to burn so bright it sets the world alight”.

An eager audience listened to a message from the Holy Father Pope Francis wishing all those who attended the festival to have a gratifying and enriching experience. He urged attendees to use the festival as a tool to “deepen their relationship with the Lord and to offer the Church and society the message of faith which is ‘a flame that grows stronger the more it is shared and passed on”.

To close off the Opening Plenary, a song from a chorus of singers delighted the crowd who waved their phone lights in a show of support that created a stunning effect reminiscent of thousands of fireflies. Inspired by the Plenary, I burst outside Qudos Bank Arena ready to hit my first event.

The challenge I soon encountered attending ACYF was working out your festival picks as there was so much going on. From perusing stalls at the Expo Encounter Dome to rocking out with Steve Angrisano or laying down in a cool dark room listening to a sermon from Emily Wilson, there was a lot to choose from.

One of my first forays was into a panel discussion related to interfaith dialogues. The panel included Archbishop Christopher Prowse (Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn), Fr Patrick McInerney, Masheed Ansari, and Rabbi Gab Krebs. The focus of the discussion was how various religions co-exist, and aimed to promote tolerance in diversity.

Later in the day I was part of the crowd that was treated to a performance by Matt Maher. As Matt performed for the faithful, the crowd began to sway to the music while raising their voices in a spirited chorus to sing along with him.

Following his set, Matt gave witness to the gathered crowd of young people and shared his own personal testimony about trying to fit in as he grew up. Matt spoke about finding a place in the world thanks to God’s love and light. It was the purpose that God had for Matt’s life, the talent he was imbued became his calling. It became Matt’s vocation to use his God given talents to share the Lord’s message.

At the end of his testimony, Matt left the audience to ponder their own unique gifts and talents, and to consider how these gifts could be used in servitude of God.

Speaking with Kiara Conaghan, a student at St Paul’s Catholic College in Booragul, she explained what she loved most about the festival. “I love meeting new people and going to all the live music and just listening and learning new ways to express faith and religion in all these diverse ways,” she said.

“A highlight of the event so far, for me, was “Hanging with Hilda”, it was enlightening how she used prayer and faith, it was nice to see how communal and personal it can be.”

Group Leaders, Shane and Leanne Hyland, were impressed by the workshops their group decided to attend. They participated in “Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Society.”

Leanne said: “It led to great conversations afterwards, and showed maturity, that these young people were capable of dealing with difficult issues. Also, the atmosphere of the festival allowed the youth to be themselves, raise arms and sing, do things they wouldn’t usually do. They felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

In conjunction with numerous workshops to choose from, an added highlight was the Bishops X-Change. An opportunity for young people to speak directly to their bishops about issues facing society today.

Our own Bishop Bill shared and answered questions from the youth in the X-Change on vocations.

As ACYF 2017 began to wind up on the third day - after providing many avenues to deepen the faith - a final highlight for me was the Pilgrimage to The Domain in Sydney for the Closing Mass.

The Pilgrimage began at Milsons Point and took the youth on a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With the aid of perfect weather, the views from the Harbour Bridge were nothing short of astounding. As the young people walked, everyone was in high spirits.

The enthusiasm of the day continued into the Closing Mass where the Catholic youth were joined by thousands of fellow Catholics from Sydney and throughout Australia.

This was the largest Mass since World Youth Day which was held in Sydney in 2008 – and a more than fitting close to a fantastic festival.

To read more about what the Australian Catholic Youth Festival, click here.

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