As always, the wonderful hospitality of the diocese was on show with a barbecue provided for all those in attendance.
As one of the pilgrims who went to World Youth Day (WYD) this year I was really looking forward to the evening. It was a chance, once again, to experience a different kind of expression of faith; one that we had enjoyed daily as we travelled through Italy and Poland. It was also a chance to hear two of my fellow pilgrims, Amber-Jane Parker and Fr Greg Barker, talk about what pilgrimage had meant to them. And finally, it was a chance to switch off from the challenges the year has brought and escape the mile-long end-of-year to-do list for just a little while. I didn’t realise until I was sitting in the theatre how much I needed to reconnect, to reflect and to sing!
The Spirit and Truth band is fantastic. The night was filled with music and song. It was joyful. There will be more chances to see the band perform throughout 2017 and I hope many can come along to those events. The evening began with four hymns and the audience joined in whole-heartedly.
Our hosts, Adam Frost and Melissa Fenech welcomed people and introduced our speakers. Amber-Jane Parker, who has not long returned from overseas, gave a moving account of what World Youth Day meant to her and the impact it has had on her since.
Amber-Jane related how she came to apply to join the pilgrimage and the challenges of raising the necessary funds. Not knowing any of her fellow pilgrims and not believing herself worthy of God’s mercy were the two major challenges she faced at the start of the journey.
“Everyone else seemed to know somebody. I cried myself to sleep a couple of nights at the start, but then I told myself that I hadn’t come all this way to cry and started to embrace it. I had always been so isolated in my faith so to be there in Poland with millions of others was incredible. I ended up making seventy besties,” Amber said.
Amber-Jane paid tribute to our fellow pilgrim Peter Taouk who died in an accident not long after we parted ways at the end of our pilgrimage.
“Peter was so willing to open up and get to know you. There is no way his soul went anywhere but heaven. I think about him all the time and feel like he’s doing the same for us,” said Amber.
In Ireland Amber-Jane encountered a priest who helped her articulate her feelings.
“He was telling me how the parish had funded the new Stations of the Cross in the church and he said that people had donated most to the station, ‘Jesus falls for the third time’. I could relate to this. Humanity comes into it; we can’t do this alone. We need to take God into account and keep getting back up when we fall,” said Amber.
It’s always easy to listen to Fr Greg Barker speak. He related how he has presided at a lot of funerals lately, all for good people who were engaged and involved. He realised that the “extraordinary is in the ordinary”.
“All of these people have lived their Christian faith with authenticity. They have built families, encouraged, being generous with their time and talents but there was also a level of outreach beyond their family. They exemplified what it means to be called by Christ,” said Fr Greg.
Fr Greg encouraged those gathered to accept God’s invitation to come to the table and share our lives together, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to live in community.
He used Matthew’s Gospel to encourage us to do something for the Syrian refugees. Are we welcoming the stranger?
“As Christian people we can’t remain unmoved by this,” Fr Greg said.
Fr Greg recalled some of the highlights of his own personal WYD journey. One was climbing the holy stairs in Rome on his knees.
“I kept looking at the crucifix and thinking if Jesus can do that I can do almost anything. It involved an offering-up that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a redemptive moment,” he said.
Exploring St Paul’s Outside the Wall in Rome was another highlight.
“It was such a simple church. Just the remains of St Paul at the altar and almost nothing else. It struck me how little we need to be people of faith. It can be very simple,” said Fr Greg.
Fr Greg encouraged us, during Advent, to put our sorrows into the crib and let Jesus restore us.
“We need to let the fragility of our humanness be supported by the love of Christ,” he said.
A WYD highlights video, produced by the multi-talented Baden Ellis, who is also a member of the Spirit and Truth band, was shown. It was enjoyed especially by the pilgrims in the audience who delighted in remembering some of the magical moments of the journey.
The evening ended with a wonderfully inclusive and supportive Mass and more great music from the band.
Thanks to everyone, including the St Pius X students who looked after the sound and lighting, for making it a night to remember.