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Smiles and laughter Down Under

What's it like to be part of the biggest youth festival on earth?
Alex Perrottet | 25 July 2008
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Alex Perrottet was master of ceremonies for two of the main World Youth Day events. He kept a diary of his experiences.

Tuesday, July 15

With a blue sky beckoning and scores of European pilgrims chanting in the street, I threw the non-essentials out of my WYD backpack, donned my Australian flag and hit the streets. Everywhere there is a cacophony of foreign languages and accents, laughter and singing, as well as quiet conversation and no doubt prayers. For months World Youth Day had been phone calls, emails, deliveries, queues, and nail-biting. Now it was here.

The reaction from Sydneysiders is mostly one of awe. No one quite expected this. The odd business man or woman passes through Martin Place and scurries through the crowds. Sydney is a land of pilgrimage for a week.

The Opening Mass and Cardinal George Pell’s homily fit perfectly with how I felt – it was a call to arms, but on an individual level. Miles of walking ended outside a pub on George Street with a guitar and singing pilgrims and the smiles of the pub’s regulars.

Wednesday, July 16

Errand of mercy time. A Filipino group was grounded in Brunei overnight. No big deal for them after months of hassle over visas, accommodation and flights. (There have been lots of hassles. My favourite is the Spanish group which booked a home stay in Adelaide thinking that it was a bus ride from Randwick. To be fair, it is a bus ride, but it takes 20 hours. That took a bit of fixing.)

Anyhow, at the WYD HQ, while sorting out passes for the Filipinos, I finally met the team face to face. While the singing, chanting crowds oozed through the city, these martyrs of WYD were still at the coalface, sorting out thousands of issues with pilgrim groups and registering the many individuals who had decided at the last minute to register for the final Mass. They don’t mind if people do things at the last minute. But when 100,000 do, that’s what I call stress.

Thursday, July 17

Pope arrives in Sydney. I am still buzzing. What a day. I fronted at Randwick Racecourse for a rehearsal for my role as MC for the Evening Vigil. Cancelled. Bad luck. I didn’t mind, as I had a very important engagement, and it involved the Pope and a boat.

I made my way to the Opera House and picked up my accreditation. Even with accreditation, I had to half undress to get through security. Big pay-off, though – a possie with the Pope. We left the Opera House with police boats on all sides and a chopper or two overhead. I felt like I was on a James Bond set. There were hundreds of Bishops and Cardinals goggling at Sydney and a hundreds of pilgrims screaming to see the Pope.

We collected the Holy Father from Rose Bay along with all the other boats and ferries accompanying the ‘Boat-a-cade’. The Pope was metres from me, conversing with a collection of representatives from around the world, including a young indigenous Australian man. When the conversation would lull, the Pope and I would exchange waves and smiles. I got very close at one stage, called out "Holy Father" and he looked down. I held up my hand with my rosary beads and crucifix and he leant over and blessed them. Score! I now officially count this as having met the Pope. I mean, how can he bless your rosary beads without meeting you? That makes two out of two Popes for me and I am a more than content pilgrim.

A bishop from Madrid was ecstatic that I offered to take a photo of him with the Pope on the balcony above. The smart money is on Madrid for WYD 2011 and I could sense a certain satisfaction in his manner that perhaps he was privy to some more definite information. One thing is for sure, the Holy Father won’t be entering Madrid on a boat – let’s see what those Spaniards come up with. With my wide exposure to Spanish pilgrims staying at our joint, I have absolute faith in their plans and schemes. However, I doubt the view of the Holy Father chatting to young people with the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and a blue sky will ever be rivalled in future World Youth Days.

After one of my enthusiastic waves, the Holy Father smiled and shrugged as if to say, "What a fuss! I’m no big deal." His humility hit me very forcefully. Minutes later he addressed the nation for the first time and told us how daunting he found his task. What a champ!

Friday, July 18

The Stations of the Cross. Despite the distraction of knowing half the apostles personally, it was a great chance to pray. The commentaries at each station were deep and practical. It all ended beautifully with a rising full moon to our left, the final stations on the screen in front of us, and the tones of the Pie Jesu. The descent from the Cross with the two great actors playing Mary and Jesus formed an incredibly moving Pieta.

A short while later I had to sing for my supper in the freezing wind. I was on stage at the Opera House Forecourt introducing musical performances. Of note were Tony Melendez, the ‘toe-picker’, a Nicaraguan who was born without arms and played for Pope John Paul II in 1987. Very impressive. Father Stan Fortuna, a rapping priest put across strong moral messages to his fans. Eminem should have been here to pick up a few tricks.

Saturday, July 19

Pity I didn’t make the Pilgrim Walk. Everyone said it was terrific to be part of a river of young people flowing over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into Randwick Racecourse. Such is the price of fame!

And not just 15 minutes of fame, but 5 hours, from 5pm to 10pm! Is it going to be 1 billion people or only 500 million? After being introduced to the fourth stage manager for the evening, we realised just how big this was. Andy, the big boss, needed a bicycle to get from backstage to the production tent! A few very deep breaths were taken as Jovina and I stepped out onto the stage. But after the first announcement, it was fun. Turning around to see your head take up the whole of the screen being watched by hundreds of thousands was a unique feeling. Hi, Mum!

Actually, if truth be told, our MC segments never actually went to air, at least in Australia. And furthermore, the Pope presided over the Vigil, not me. He entertained us with his smiles and finger-wagging acknowledgments. A privilege was to go and sit up near the choir as the Pope arrived. I won’t forget kneeling down 30 metres away from the altar with the Pope leading us all in the hymn Tantum Ergo. I never sang it so loudly and proudly. Adoration at the WYD Vigil was a real triumph of the Catholic faith. How did 250,000 young people maintain a breathless silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament? Adoration at the WYD Vigil was insisted upon by the Pope. As sceptical as some are about the devotion of the youth, perhaps it was his fatherly wisdom: you will never get 250,000 kids to be quiet as effectively as a Pope with the Blessed Sacrament.

When the Vigil was over, I headed back to Warrane College, a stone’s throw from the racecourse. I grabbed a sleeping bag and warm clothes and trudged back as a normal pilgrim. I didn’t sleep at all, and I didn’t meet anyone who did. The tent with the Eucharist exposed was full all night and the queues for Confessions only petered out after 3am. Hmmm.

Sunday, World Youth Day, July 20

Today is the day. I stood in section F1 with my group and we prayed with the Pope. The Mass was imperial. The score, written by a Sydney judge, struck a chord with the young people. Catholic youth get right into Gregorian chants and Latin hymns. At one stage in the middle of the racecourse the night before, I stood with a bunch of young friends and we sang the Salve Regina that most knew in Latin off by heart.

The Pope has a gift, I discovered. He looks out over a sea of 400,000 people and he searches you out and looks you straight in the eye. Unnerving. Spine-tingling. "What will you leave to the next generation?" he asked me. "Are you building your lives on firm foundations, building something that will endure?" He seems to have asked others the same question. There was a great silence. We were all dreaming of a country with greater faith and less cynicism.

Monday, July 21

The Pope wanted to see me again, I think, because I was invited to a thank-you party for WYD Volunteers. But he missed out because he had to run to catch his flight. He left half-way through Guy Sebastian and Paulini singing the WYD2008 theme song, "Receive the Power". Poor old Guy! He was drowned out by thousands of volunteers chanting "Viva Il Papa!" Anyhow, he’ll get over it.

During the speeches of thanks and appreciation, it suddenly became clear to me why WYD2008 had worked so well: everyone in charge was a towering 6 foot, 4 inches tall – Cardinal Pell, the head honcho; Danny Casey, the Chief Operating Officer, Steve Lawrence, Director of Evangelisation and Catechesis, Geoff Morris, the Director of Pilgrim Services and Support. Or maybe we all just grew a few inches because of all the effort, and prayer, and contact with the Holy Father. It’s something to pass on to the spies from Madrid. (That leaves out Bishop Anthony Fisher, but maybe he squeezes in as a towering intellect.)

Tuesday, July 22

I’ve been trying to book a flight to Madrid but my credit card is maxed out. It will be nice to be just a humble pilgrim queuing up for showers, sleeping on concrete, and straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of the successor of Peter in the distance.

Until then, I will reread the words of the Pope, close my eyes and stand again in his presence. The streets are empty of flags, colour and happy pilgrims now, but WYD2008 has just begun. The organisers have a 20-year plan to water and fertilise the seeds planted in the pilgrims’ hearts. I can hardly wait for 2028. Bring it on!

Alex Perrottet is Assistant Dean of Warrane College, at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney.

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