Part of the 600-strong pilgrimage group travelling to World Youth Day (WYD) this year is a group of individuals who will be travelling via Rome for a unique experience of learning called the Emerging Leaders immersion program. More than 80 people from across Catholic parishes, education, health and social services contexts will pilgrimage with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli as part of a program of formation designed to ground them in what it means to be a Christian leader in their contexts of influence.

This program, the first of its kind in Melbourne, comes with many singular opportunities. The first portion of the Emerging Leaders program will be in Rome, allowing participants to visit some of the Church’s most important sacred sites. From cathedrals to catacombs, they will see, touch and experience the profound richness of Catholic history and tradition.

A team of formation leaders, including lay and ordained teachers, will accompany pilgrims in a rich learning experience enabling participants to develop their leadership identity through self-reflection and spiritual discernment.

Alongside this, pilgrims will hear from four major speakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church—hand-picked by Archbishop Comensoli himself—about what personal leadership looks like when informed by faith. Speakers include Dr Donna Orsuto, Director of the Lay Centre in Rome; Dr Stephen Wang, Rector Venerable of the English College in Rome; Sr Nathalie Becquart XMCJ, Undersecretary to the Synod of Bishops; and the Most Reverend Rino Fisichella, Pro Prefect for the New Evangelisation in the Dicastery for Evangelisation.

The program has been specially devised in collaboration with the Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS) leadership development and mission teams, and while the workshops and lectures are central to the formative experience, the desire is for Rome itself to be the teacher. The aim is to make the Catholic faith come alive in a whole new way simply by being in one of the world’s oldest Christian locations. It’s envisioned that this experience will deepen each pilgrim’s knowledge, understanding and confidence in the relevance of the Church and her mission in the contemporary context.

While in Rome, pilgrims will tread the same ground as countless martyrs, saints, leaders, thinkers and artists before them—men and women who have shaped the future of the Church through their dedication to faith and service.

Fr Nicholas Pearce, Deputy Director of Proclaim: Office for Mission Renewal and WYD Pilgrimage Operations Manager, says that while all pilgrims are called to encounter Christ through WYD, the point of difference of the Emerging Leaders program is that it aims to ‘inspire and encourage participants to enter more deeply into what it means to be a Christian leader in their own spheres’. He hopes that through their experiences on pilgrimage, participants will ‘have a deep and abiding encounter with Christ, the model par excellence of leadership.’

The Emerging Leaders pilgrimage group.

The second part of the Emerging Leaders program will take place in Assisi, where participants will experience a two-day retreat before joining the wider Melbourne pilgrimage group in Lisbon. This time in Assisi will mark ‘a spiritual shift’ in their experience, Fr Pearce says. ‘Rome is about learning and discovering; Assisi is about encountering the Lord more deeply in prayer.’ This experience will be crucial in helping pilgrims reflect on and develop their own leadership identity in the light of Jesus Christ.

Many of the chaplains travelling with the Emerging Leaders have previously lived in Rome as students and for ministry. Their intimate knowledge of the Eternal City will hopefully add a personal touch to the pilgrim experience. Fr Jerome Santamaria is one of the chaplains travelling with the emerging leaders and says he is excited and hopeful about what participants will experience.

‘Every pilgrimage is an adventure,’ he says. ‘We start out with a destination in mind and decide to open ourselves to what God puts in our path. What makes it such an adventure, though, is the context of faith. The encounter with Christ transfigures each moment.’

The pilgrims will have the ‘opportunity to share at a deep level … something not always found in daily life. So while I know the talks and sights will be inspiring, I am really looking forward to the conversations and shared prayer.’

In his 2023 Patrick Oration, Archbishop Comensoli asked whether ‘we are trying to fit our young people into old wineskins, rather than acknowledging the vitality, and seeing the possibilities that are among us.’ Through the Emerging Leaders program, young people who are already leaders in their fields, already situated in contexts of influence and possibility, have been invited to come on a unique and immersive faith-formation journey. The hope is that by encountering the Lord in a fresh way, and learning what leadership inspired by faith looks like, they will return to Melbourne more able to serve and lead by the light of the Gospel.