Youth representatives from around the Archdiocese gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday 21 November for the annual diocesan celebration of World Youth Day (WYD).

International World Youth Days take place every two to three years, and a diocesan WYD celebration takes place annually. Traditionally, this has taken place on Passion (Palm) Sunday, until in 2020 Pope Francis moved the event to the Solemnity of Christ the King, saying ‘the centre of the celebration remains the Mystery of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of Man, as Saint John Paul II, the initiator and patron of WYD, always emphasized.’

To mark the occasion, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli wrote a special letter to the young people of Melbourne, which was distributed at the Mass on Sunday.

‘These past two years of the pandemic have carried a great loss of belonging for us all, and have certainly challenged us spiritually, mentally and physically,’ wrote the Archbishop. ‘Gathering as a community of faith remains such an important, foundational aspect to our life as members of the Body of Christ.’

He said it was no coincidence that World Youth Day (WYD) now fell on the feast of Christ the King, for ‘the heart of every disciple beats loudly with the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our friend.’

The theme for this year’s WYD is: “Stand up. I appoint you as a witness of what you have seen.” (cf. Acts 26:16) The words are taken from the Acts of the Apostles, where the Apostle Paul recounts his initial encounter with Jesus, who tells him to rise and bear witness to the Lord.

‘The Lord meets us where we are to invite us into a deeper life in him,’ Archbishop Comensoli wrote.

‘Even in the midst of these challenging times, we know that he has been with us – and remains our constant source of strength and life. How might you draw upon your encounter with Jesus and serve him in this time and place?’

Following the Mass, a special youth gathering was hosted on the rooftop of ACU by members of the Discipleship Team of the Proclaim Office for Mission Renewal. The afternoon included a panel discussion with Archbishop Comensoli and youth leaders Shania Allen, Adil Alvares and Mia Zelesco, who shared how they’ve encountered Jesus over the years.

Common among their responses was the misconception that an encounter with Jesus only happened in the “big” moments or the “mountaintop” experiences like an international World Youth Day.

Each panelist shared how the most powerful experiences happened in surprising and seemingly mundane ways.

‘I had this preconceived notion of what an encounter was,’ said Shania, who envisaged it being ‘a big, booming voice’ from God. She said that while Mass was a regular family event for Shania growing up, it was only in recent years that she made the conscious decision to make her faith about a personal relationship with God.

‘I would say that I made my life a part of my faith, and not just faith a part of my life.’

Once Shania understood that an encounter with God was more than just waiting for that ‘booming voice’, she was able to see God in new ways through Scripture, music, contemplation and everyday experiences. ‘It can be a lot simpler than what we think it might be.’

Similar to Shania, youth leader Adil recalled a Salesian retreat he attended in Lysterfield, and how during a moment of quiet it dawned on him that faith was something that he needed to take ownership of, without relying on his parents or others.

This realisation enabled him to encounter Jesus in the ‘small things’ such as talks, retreats, camps and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. ‘They’re just small moments of silence and prayer.’

‘What is an encounter? An encounter is a getting to know Jesus, who is also getting to know us,’ explained Archbishop Comensoli.

He shared how he had recently watched the TV series The Chosen, which explores the backstories of Jesus’ disciples. The Archbishop recalled an early episode in the series where Jesus is out camping and is discovered by a group of children from the local town. The children are instantly drawn to Jesus and spend time with him, learning about his carpentry and listening to his stories before he moves on.

‘There’s a meeting that is involved when we encounter Jesus in our lives. And it can be quite surprising when that happens.’

The Archbishop reflected on his first World Youth Day experience back in 1997 when, as a relatively new priest, he had travelled to Paris with a parish youth group and was excited to experience Taizé prayer. But when the time came to attend the Taizé session, he instead took care of one of their pilgrims who had been having a tough time on the pilgrimage.

‘And it ended up being one of the most powerful memories of the whole pilgrimage, because it was an encounter with Jesus through, and with, this young pilgrim who was struggling. So [an encounter] can happen in all sorts of ways.’

Videos from the panel discussion and other resources will be made available in the coming weeks by the Discipleship Team of Proclaim: The Office for Mission Renewal. It will form part of a series of new initiatives that seek to build up the young people of Melbourne and equip them on their journey of faith. The next international World Youth Day will take place in 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.