Wednesday 31 May 2023, the feast of the Visitation, marks 50 days until Melbourne’s pilgrims travel to the Church’s largest international youth gathering: World Youth Day. This year the event is being hosted by Lisbon, Portugal, with an expected one million pilgrims travelling from around the world to be there.

Melbourne is pleased to be sending more than 500 pilgrims, from more than 50 parishes and 40 schools from across the Archdiocese—our largest ever overseas group! To manage such a big group, 130 of these pilgrims have assumed leadership roles as chaplains, pilgrimage coordinators, first aiders, mental health specialists, nurses and small group leaders.

As the excitement builds, pilgrims are joining with their communities and asking them to pray that this time of practical and spiritual preparation will be fruitful, that they will encounter Jesus and return to enliven their homes, parishes, schools and communities.

Fr Daryl Montecillo, one of the chaplains on the pilgrimage, has encouraged the pilgrims to ‘be open to the unexpected’ through the experience. ‘I’ve been blessed to go [to World Youth Day] twice, and some of the best experiences were completely unplanned.’

‘My real hope is that they get to encounter our Lord, to meet Jesus and to share him with others where they return to,’ he says.

This 50-day period will be a special one. You are invited to join in prayer with communities throughout the Archdiocese that this will be a time of grace for our pilgrims and our local communities as they journey together in faith.

How have our pilgrims been preparing?

In the lead-up to the pilgrimage, our pilgrims have been working hard, not only fundraising for the trip but also engaging in several formation events hosted by the Archdiocese to help spiritually prepare them for the experience.

Recently, at Australian Catholic University’s Melbourne campus, the pilgrims came out in full force, gathereing as a whole for the first time. Archbishop Peter A Comensoli joined them via livestream from Rome, sharing his hopes that in Lisbon ‘Jesus will find you’ and that they will experience the desire to go out in mission themselves.

The leaders have been engaged in formation of their own. Three sessions of the Essentials of Christian Leadership series have been held, a special program specially devised for the pilgrim leaders, looking at leadership through the lens of discipleship. Based in Scripture and following the model of Jesus calling and growing his disciples, the series aims to form leaders who, as disciples of Christ, can go out and effectively accompany young people as they encounter Jesus and develop a deep friendship. Personal accompaniment and fostering encounters with the Lord are central to transforming lives towards faith.

With keynote addresses on discipleship and discovering their personal vocation, this series was an opportunity for leaders to gather in their pilgrimage groups and pray with each other, get to know each other and learn more about the practicalities of pilgrimage.

Reflecting on this series, one of the leaders, Klara, says it was a great opportunity for leaders to establish ‘really strong foundations’ in their faith before heading out. By prompting them to reflect on their own faith and the faith of the Church, the series helped them be ‘a bit more grounded going into these leadership positions.’

‘I love how there were so many opportunities to bond as a team—to then, as leadership, be a united front while we’re on pilgrimage,’ she says.

Based upon her own experience, she hopes the pilgrims will view World Youth Day 2023 as the beginning of a journey. ‘It will take time for it to sink it,’ she says. ‘It will be the start of a journey that you need to continually nourish and care for and nurture afterwards, just like you would a plant. It’s not just something you are on and experience and then that’s it. You need to continue that journey.’

Another leader, Gerry, shares a similar sense of excitement about the experience. ‘The opportunity to receive formation and discover more about the heart of God and the mission of the Church through leadership has been really beautiful,’ she says. ‘We’ve all felt drawn to this common experience and how we’re excited to journey and accompany our peers.’

The establishment of small groups, which are integral to the structure of the Melbourne pilgrimage, is really important, Gerry says. ‘I think the power of having a small group that can pray with each other is really pivotal in the way that the Holy Spirit can guide us in this experience … I hope my small group is just a really awesome space where people can share about everything they’ve experienced so far, in preparation for the World Youth Day journey but also whilst we’re in Lisbon.’

‘It’s really going to be transformational for the Church in Melbourne,’ she predicts.

One of the other leaders, Dennis, reflects on his own experience going to World Youth Day for the first time. Alongside the nervousness, there was also ‘a desire to be there … to just let go and discover, and I think that’s what pilgrimage is all about.’

He encourages the pilgrims to ‘be open, because what you ask for, God will give you. He will give you more than that. Take a really big, open heart, because when God gives, he doesn’t give you little bits, he gives you a lot. And that’s what’s going to happen at World Youth Day.’

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Lisbon, Portugal.

What’s next?

The next session for the pilgrims will be on 5 June, when they find out what small groups they are in for the duration of the pilgrimage.

In the days leading up to World Youth Day, they will continue to prepare and engage in formation, and all of this will culminate on 16 July in a Commissioning Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli.

The Archdiocese has offered pilgrims the opportunity to journey through significant locations associated with our faith heritage before converging on Lisbon. One pilgrimage will follow the footsteps of Jesus, journeying through the Holy Land. Another will make its way to Rome and then Assisi. Both of these pilgrimages will visit the shrine of Fatima.

The first pilgrimage group, to the Holy Land, will depart on 19 July at the end of the 50 days of prayer.

Also, for the first time, the Archdiocese is offering the Emerging Leaders Program, a unique opportunity for Catholic school teachers and upcoming young leaders from Catholic parishes and organisations to be formed in the way of Christian discipleship and leadership. They will learn from Australian and international experts in Rome and Assisi before joining the rest of the pilgrims in Portugal.

The World Youth Day week begins on Tuesday 1 August and concludes on Sunday 6 August, and the theme for this year is ‘Mary arose and went with haste’ (Luke 1:39).

Over the next 50 days, you are invited to pray for our pilgrims, that World Youth Day might be a time where they encounter the Lord in a new way and return ready to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.