‘Do not be afraid’ was the clarion call issued to World Youth Day pilgrims last weekend (16–17 September), who reunited for the first time since returning from Lisbon last month. Close to 600 young people from Melbourne parishes and schools attended World Youth Day in Lisbon, with pilgrims converging in the Portuguese capital after a series of pre-pilgrimage experiences in Rome, Assisi and the Holy Land.

There was a sense of joy and emotion as pilgrims caught up with each other at the weekend, with separate sessions being run across the two days for both the under-18 and over-18 pilgrim groups.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli reflected on his own highlights from the pilgrimage experience, emphasising that ‘pilgrimage matters’ in the Christian life and expressing his fervent desire that this sense of pilgrimage may continue in the lives of young people.

Each reflection session began with a time of prayer as participants were invited to allow their hearts to be ‘an open space’, recalling the prayer at the first pilgrim formation session, when pilgrims were encouraged to be open to where the Lord was calling them.

Local pilgrim Donna Mihos shared how World Youth Day was ‘life-changing’ for her: ‘I will forever be grateful for the World Youth Day experience in ways that rest in my heart and cannot properly be conveyed in words,’ she said. Along the way, she said, she had experienced many ‘God-incidences’ that allowed her to encounter Christ more deeply.

‘Like Mary, we [the pilgrims] hope to go out into our communities with haste, with the joy of sharing Christ with all whom we meet.’

As part of the session, pilgrims were shown a recently recorded video of Pope Francis addressing young people, urging them to ‘keep alive’ their memories of World Youth Day and to become ‘missionaries, sowers and witnesses’ of what they experienced in Lisbon.

‘It is a memory that is not to be packed away or left alone in photo albums,’ he said.

‘It should be a living memory, and you have to keep it alive. And how do you keep something alive? By passing it on, by giving it to others.’

‘Don’t anesthetise that memory,’ he said, encouraging them to share their World Youth Day experience with others ‘at university, at school, at work’. ‘Tell them about what you experienced, what you lived, and that crowd of more than a million and a half who were there, and above all about what you felt. It is your turn to be witnesses,’ he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by members of the local Church of Melbourne, who, in a specially recorded video message, welcomed the pilgrims home and encouraged them to go deeper in their faith.

Fr Simeon Anthony, assistant priest at St Peter the Apostle, Hoppers Crossing, shared how excited he was to welcome pilgrims home. ‘Keep in touch with your community. Come and share and witness about your encounter with God. You are always welcome!’

‘Don’t stop searching, because that tells us that our heart has found something,’ said Dennis Alberto, a teacher from Penola Catholic College, who also attended World Youth Day as a group leader.

Susanne Sweeny, a parishioner from St Andrew’s, Werribee, whose daughter travelled to Lisbon, urged pilgrims to stay connected with one another in prayer and friendship, and to not be afraid of sharing their story with others.

The people in your parish, they want to hear your story. This is a massive event in your spiritual life, and people want to hear that. People are touched when other people are touched.

‘Find who else is there and talk to them about how they’re involved in parish [life],’ said Sr Rita Malavisi RSJ. ‘Listen … Ask questions.’

‘Community is so important,’ said Dennis. ‘That element of connecting with others is such an important part of growing in faith.’

Fr Tony Kerin, Episcopal Vicar for the Eastern Region and parish priest of St Francis Xavier and St Claire’s in Box Hill, encouraged pilgrims to make contact with their local parish priest, who he said ‘will be very excited about what you might be able to offer’.

‘The Melbourne Church is a multicultural church that seems to gather the best of all sorts of different spiritualities and express them in a way that’s open, diverse and welcoming,’ Fr Tony said, encouraging pilgrims to find what speaks to them and to get involved.

‘The local Church of Melbourne is undergoing a rejuvenation. They [the young people] need to be part it ... to be involved in the transformation and the change. That’s why it’s so exciting.’

‘Do not be afraid to witness what you’ve encountered,’ echoed Fr Simeon. ‘I would like to encourage you, to invite you: this is your home; be involved in your home.’

As part of the retreat weekend, pilgrims spent an hour in prayer and adoration, recalling that seminal moment at the World Youth Day vigil when silence fell upon the 1.5 million pilgrims gathered in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

A number of initiatives, resources and events have been planned by Proclaim: The Office for Mission Renewal, to support pilgrims seeking to stay connected and grow in faith in their local parishes, schools and communities.