In the middle of the crowd of 3,700,000 pilgrims on Copacabana Beach last weekend for the World Youth Day vigil and Mass with Pope Francis it was easy to feel overawed, excited and probably more scared than I wanted to admit. Two years ago I was shut-out of the final vigil when Spanish officials over-estimated the capacity of the venue; five years ago in the best-organised WYD in Sydney everyone was able to make it inside Randwick Racecourse. But the crowds of young people who descended upon Sydney were dwarfed by the ten-times-larger crowds that swelled the city of Rio de Janeiro. A crowd like that one is very good at making you feel very small and very insignificant.
The experience in Rio reminded me of my first experience of a World Youth Day, way back in Paris 1997, and discovered what being Catholic actually meant. No longer was I just one lone Catholic seminarian in a secular nation, but I found that in that crowd of 1.2 million pilgrims I was in the heart of the Church that can truly be called Catholic. The terrible experience of the failed and boring Madrid WYD [Sydney’s high-church liturgies were equally irrelevant to young people] had blunted my memories of how good WYD could be – but thankfully the beauty and joy of the celebrations in Rio restored all that.
In the Hebrew language, there are very few abstract words; so when Qoheleth [the Preacher] attempts to describe his experience at the end of his life of realising that all the riches and pleasures that he has shared in across the span of his life, he chooses the word ‘havel’ which means vapour. It is a great word to describe something that you cannot grab hold of because it simply slips between your fingers. Likewise when you find yourself in the middle of an immense crowd of young Catholics gathered in worship, so many of the things that we build our lives upon turn out to be mere vanity.
Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington, 8am (7’53”)
Sunday 18, Year C