Malcolm Hart, director of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Office for Youth, is helping coordinate the bishops’ pilgrimage of approximately 700 people across 12 groups from throughout Australia.
“There’s another 300 people independently attending, so that’s over 1000 Australians who will be at World Youth Day in Panama this year,” he said.
The theme for this year’s pilgrimage is: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38).
“The welcome of the Pope, Stations of the Cross and closing Mass with Pope Francis will be significant highlights of World Youth Day. I also believe the energy and excitement of the Panama culture and people will be a highlight for all of our pilgrims,” Mr Hart said.
“The themes for this year’s World Youth Day have all been about Mary’s story and Mary’s call to be the Mother of Christ. The Marian theme runs throughout all of the pilgrimages.”
Mr Hart said approximately half of the Australian contingent would visit Mexico City to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most popular Marian shrines in the world.
“It’s very exciting. It’s only days to go. Most groups leave on Tuesday (January 15) and Wednesday, the 16th of January,” he said.
New South Wales will send the largest contingent, with most youths from the greater Sydney area.
Townsville priest Fr Mick Lowcock, from Mt Isa’s Good Shepherd Parish, will lead a group of 21 pilgrims to Panama, including seminarians from Townsville and Toowoomba.
“I think World Youth Day gives young people a great confidence in being Catholic. They see millions of other young Catholic people and so they feel proud and realise they are part of something big, whereas here they are in a minority,” Fr Lowcock said.
“It gives them a deeper sense of their own faith journey as well.”
Among the Townsville pilgrims is recent nursing graduate Clare Patmore, who is making her third WYD pilgrimage. The 20-year-old attended WYD Rio in 2013 and WYD Krakow two years ago.
“I’ve really grown a lot in my faith since Rio. Poland helped me to focus more on faith,” she said.
“WYD is very joyful and I feel like everyone kind of radiates the same kind of energy and it’s amazing seeing millions of young people gathered together for the same reason. I definitely recommend it as a way to explore your faith and getting a deeper understanding.”
Aaron Gupta, 24, a relationship manager with the Catholic Development Fund, is excited about his selection to attend WYD as part of his personal and professional development.
“I’ve only been with CDF now for under a year and the opportunity came up and I applied. I can’t believe it. I think it’s going to be incredible,” he said.
Mr Gupta’s group of 42 Melbourne attendees will travel via Mexico City first, then on to Panama and finally Houston for a retreat the complete their 18-day pilgrimage.
“The opportunity to learn about the Catholic faith as well as seeing the Pope will be an absolutely phenomenal experience,” he said.
Laura Burton, 27, a youth minister at St Bernadette’s Parish at Castle Hill in Sydney, will be attending her first WYD and is looking forward to the experience.
“I’m very excited to experience the different culture and I’d really love to meet Pope Francis but just to see him will be amazing,” Miss Burton said.
“World Youth Day is a good reminder to people that there are so many other young Catholics out there that do share the same views as them and they do participate fully in their faith.
“It’s super encouraging, especially to the young people in the Church who are unsure or trying to work out how they fit in the world.”