From: Fr. Chris Ryan, MGL
To: Every Australian prilgrim traveling to World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid
I‘d like to think that right now you are thousands of metres up in the air, and that far below you the lights of Dili, Delhi or Dubai are winking up at you. Everyone else on the plane is asleep, and you have picked up your World Youth Day Journal and have begun to thumb through it (ok, so I know that you may actually be reading this in your bedroom before you leave, or maybe even after you have arrived home from Spain. If that’s so, humour me a little and pretend that you are on your way to Europe, and the whole adventure still lies ahead of you). I hope you have a lot of fun! In fact, I’m sure you will have an amazing experience. And you never know, it might just change your life.
No doubt that even before you left Australia, your group leader had already fed you the line: ‘you’re a pilgrim not a tourist’. It’s one of the things group leaders say to prepare you for the worst that your journey will bring: long queues, big crowds, cold showers, school floors,. It’s more than just a line though. You really are a pilgrim. You have joined a countless queue of people throughout history who have made a journey to a sacred place. So welcome to the club. Here’s the thing though: you are currently travelling thousands of kilometres in order to visit breathtakingly beautiful and important places, but the most sacred journey a pilgrim undertakes is actually a journey of the heart.
In the past, people went on pilgrimage for lots of different reasons. Some definitely took it all very seriously, and prayed the whole way, and no doubt got really excited when they arrived in Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or whatever shrine or religious hotspot they were aiming for. We know from the history books that lots of other people went on pilgrimage because it was really the only form of tourism that they had available. They wanted to see the world, and pilgrimage was a respectable way of leaving everything at home behind in order to check out somewhere new. Not much has changed. There are some of you who know exactly why you are going to World Youth Day. You are hanging out to go to Mass with a couple of million other young people and the pope. That’s great. But there are others who somehow also got the chance to come and it seemed like a great opportunity. You might not be all that sure about all the religious stuff that’s going on. My tip, whether you are a WYD groupie or a complete WYD newbie is this: pay attention to your heart. As you experience all that this 21st century pilgrimage has to offer, listen to what the deepest part of you is telling you.
That’s because you aren’t on this plane by accident. God got you here and whether you know it or not, God has some very definite purpose in mind for you over the days and weeks ahead. So, as you have a fantastic time experiencing all that Spain (and whatever other countries you visit along the way) has to offer, keep listening to your heart, and keep paying attention.
In particular, listen to what your heart is telling you when you hear the stories of faith from the other young people in your group, and when you meet other pilgrims from other parts of the world. Listen also to the witness of the stones, stained glass and art of the cathedrals and churches that you visit. They are ‘words’ set in stone and sand and paint that can speak to you of previous generations’ faith and love. When you take a moment on the bus to write in your journal, when you stop for a moment’s silence in a church, as you sit in a plaza (that’s Spanish for ‘square’) and have a coffee, when you are speechless at the sight of the natural wonder and beauty before you, and even when you find yourself in conflict or struggling with someone or something on the journey, stop again and listen to your heart.
And when you’re at the WYD vigil and everyone has lit their candles, and all you can see in every direction are flickers of flame held aloft by young hands from all over the world, and as you realise then and there that you belong to a universal family called the Catholic Church, listen to your heart then too. You aren’t alone. There are so many young people like you who are listening to their heart at that moment too.
I’m going to spoil the surprise and tell you what’s going on: In all those moments it’s someone knocking on the door of your heart that you can hear. That’s because your destination at end of your pilgrimage is not a place, it’s a person. The goal of this journey is a meeting, an encounter with Jesus Christ. He is alive, risen from the dead, and that means he is the answer to the deepest questions, the deepest desires and longings of your heart. He wants to be the source and foundation of your lives as you are planted and built up in him. He wants you to be firm in your faith in him, because he is the sure hope, the solid ground on which you can base your lives.
Vaya con Dios, peregrino (that’s Spanish for ‘go with God, pilgrim’). Vaya con Dios.
Fr. Chris Ryan, MGL, is the Rector of the Missionaries of God’s Love House of Formation in Melbourne, Australia. He served as the Coordinator of the Journey of the WYD Cross and Icon for World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia.