There could not have been a better setting for the vocational meeting of the Neocatechumenal Way than the grassed terrain of Sydney’s Domain, surrounded by several Sycamores, a tree so dear to the evangelical landscape.
Over 40,000 young members of the Way from around the world who had celebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI only a day earlier, gathered in the open space behind St Mary’s Cathedral to meet with the initiators and international leaders of the Neocatechumenal Way – Kiko Arguello, Carmen Hernandez and Fr Mario Pezzi.
The Neocatechumenal Way is a way of initiation to faith within the Catholic Church dedicated to Christian formation. It is present in 112 countries of the world with almost 20,000 communities. The Statute of the Neocatechumenal Way was approved on June 13.
Presiding over the meeting was Cardinal George Pell who encouraged the young crowd, saying that the Holy Spirit was breathing through the Neocatechumenal communities and into an Australian nation that, to many, is becoming more secular by the day. He urged the young people to continue in their mission as Christians and to remain signs of the love of Christ for the youth of Australia.
The magnitude of support for the movement within the upper echelons of the Catholic Church was proved with the presence of Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna Chri¬stoph Schönborn and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (Archbishop emeritus of Washington), plus the Cardinal Archbishops of Bogota and Barcelona.
Perth Archbishop Barry Hickey, his Auxiliary Bishop Donald Sproxton, Bunbury’s Gerard Holohan and Broome’s Christopher Saunders joined these.
A special welcome was given to Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid, the city that will host the next World Youth Day in 2011; while the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, was also present.
The variety of flags fluttering in the crowd was breathtaking as Kiko welcomed brothers and sisters from Spain, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Poland, Lebanon, Egypt, North and South America, Africa, China, Japan and Malaysia, to mention a few. The Australian crowd was left till last, rising to its feet when called.
The Neocatechumenal groups from around the globe had been travelling throughout the week leading up to World Youth Day following 40 set itineraries that reached the major cities of Australia, plus some Aboriginal communities.
The message behind the gospel of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was chosen by Kiko as the theme around which the meeting was to revolve. Zacchaeus was a wealthy but hated tax collector in the town of Jericho who climbed a Sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he walked past. Jesus told Zacchaeus to descend from the tree to serve as his host for the rest of the day, an act which inspired Zacchaeus to give half of his money to the poor, and repay four times the amount to all those from whom he had stolen.
Kiko used the figure of Zacchaeus to invite the young people present to convert and live a Christian life that fulfils and puts into practice the Word of God. His was an urgent message to those present, and to all the young people of the world, to climb down from the Sycamore tree of their lives, a tree which reflects the securities and comforts of life and the tendency one has to keep God at arm’s length.
It is a tree from which we are all afraid to descend. Kiko also spoke of the condition of slavery in which modern day man finds himself, condemned to a life of egoism, of pleasure and of interest in economic growth.
Once again he reaffirmed his invitation to all to break free from those chains which keep man enslaved to the world and ask discernment from God to be able to be free and renounce the will of Satan.
Kiko’s announcement of the Kerygma (Good News) , translated into various languages via radio, seemed to strike many of those listening as he encouraged the crowd to have as their primary desire in life the aspiration to follow Christ, so that they may see the wonders he has in store for each and every one of them.
After these words of encouragement came the apex of the evening: the vocational call, first for men and subsequently for women. Prompted by Kiko’s invitation to come forward if there were any men who felt called to give their lives for Christ and enter the priesthood.
Fifteen hundred youths stood up and came onto the stage creating a river of people from different nationalities, united in their desire to give themselves to Jesus Christ. It was a scene, which left almost every onlooker in awe.
The young men knelt down together as Cardinal Pell prayed over them. Then one by one they received a special blessing from the bishops present.
Following the call for men was a call for women who felt the desire to join religious orders. Answering was yet another river of young people, this time 850 women, all standing up as a sign of their availability to the vocation to consecrated life.
As these women climbed the steps of the stage they did so under the gaze of the statue of the Virgin Mary, spiritual mother of the Neocatechumenal Way, the first woman to have said a definite and sincere ‘yes’ to the will of God in her life.
The vocational meeting concluded with a song composed by Kiko on the gospel of Zacchaeus. Combined with the Mass with Pope Benedict XVI only the day before, this event was yet another sign of the strength with which the Holy Spirit is working in Australia in this moment.
One hopes that the good which has come out of the ensemble of events for this World Youth Day may be a revival of many forgotten Christian values amongst not only the young people but the entire population of, in Pope Benedict’s words: “This great southern land of the Holy Spirit”.