SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- This is a magnificent, modern city, built on a stunning harbour with its signature bridge. Famous for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, this week it will become famous for another world event: World Youth Day 2008.
Approximately 100,000 young people from around the world have joined at least 100,000 Australian youth for the 23rd World Youth Day in Sydney this week.
In addition to the 2,000 young participants, the Canadian delegation is comprised of 15 bishops, some of whom will act as catechists during the morning teaching sessions. Several hundred of the Canadians are from the Toronto area.
"Many young people today lack hope," Pope Benedict said from Rome before heading to Australia. "They are perplexed by the questions that present themselves ... and they are often uncertain which way to turn for answers.
"They see poverty and injustice and they long to find solutions. They are challenged by the arguments of those who deny the existence of God and they wonder how to respond. They see great damage done to the natural environment through human greed and they struggle to find ways to live in greater harmony with nature and with one another.
"Where," the Pope asks, "can we look for answers? The Spirit points us towards the way that leads to life, to love and to truth. The Spirit points us towards Jesus Christ. ... In Him we find the answers that we are seeking, ... we find the strength to pursue the path that will bring about a better world."
Such words sum up beautifully what these mega youth gatherings are all about, whether they be in Denver, Manila, Rome, Toronto or Cologne. World Youth Days, the brainstorm and genius of Pope John Paul II, are one of the most hopeful, creative and wise tools the Roman Catholic Church has to reach out to future generations. Each World Youth Day event brings to the fore the question of how best the Church can convey the Gospel message to young men and women.
At Tuesday's opening mass, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed the huge crowd and delivered a very courageous, stirring and clear message:
"You are here for this great celebration of life, this great celebration of faith and this great celebration of hope. And for this you are so much the light of the world at a time when the world has so much darkness.
"Too often in the history of the world when young people travelled in great numbers to other parts of the world, they do so in the cause of war," he said. "But you here today are here as pilgrims of peace."
Who can ever forget that blessed event in Toronto six years ago? Spending these days "down under" offers me the opportunity to relive many of the significant moments we knew in Canada as hosts. Through that blessed experience, I learned what it means to be truly Catholic: Open to the world! I know my life was changed through the whole experience of World Youth Days, and I am convinced hundreds of thousands of lives are also changed as we realize the Church is alive and young.