By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

A pilgrimage isn’t really a pilgrimage unless there is a bit of hardship along the way. It makes reaching the goal even more exhilarating. A group of 67 Philadelphia-area pilgrims, mostly teens with a few young adults and chaperones, discovered this during a July 10-25 pilgrimage as they traveled 9,869 miles to Sydney, Australia to be with Pope Benedict XVI and World Youth Day events.{{more}}

The trip was organized by Father Chris Walsh and included students and recent grads of Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster, where he taught until June of this year. There was also a contingent of 16 brought together by Father Matthew Guckin, School Minister at Bishop Shanahan High School-in Downingtown.

The plan was to fly to Atlanta, take another flight to Los Angeles, then fly to New Zealand, spend a few days there, then on to Sydney.

“I was at the last World Youth Day in Cologne and I thought this would be good,” Father Walsh said. “We started planning in February 2007. I thought we would have maybe 10 or 12 people,” he said.

The first hint that this would be no ordinary journey came on the initial leg to Atlanta. Bad weather forced their plane to land in South Carolina, and by the time they arrived in Atlanta they had missed the flight to Los Angeles. When they got to Los Angeles, they had missed their flight to New Zealand. This meant a two-day layover, with the first night sleeping on the floor in the airport, although the airline did put them up in a hotel the second night.

“We scrapped our stay in New Zealand and arrived in Sydney on July 14,” Father Walsh said. “Our hardships put us in the pilgrimage mood, being dependent on the kindness of strangers.”

In Sydney a sense of joy overtook the group, as they mingled with other young people from around the world. “The kids were amazed, just laughing, talking and singing with people from all over,” Father Walsh said.

The group had a good vantage point to witness Pope Benedict’s dramatic arrival by boat in Sydney’s harbor on July 17. Later, the pilgrims were impressed by his ease in speaking to young people, as well as his humility and his obvious enjoyment of the gathering, Father Walsh noted.

“We had a rough start, but it was amazing. It was so cool,” said Lauren McGrath, who is going into her junior year at Archbishop Wood. “We were with people from Poland, Venezuela, Croatia, Bali. At the Pope’s Mass we were all praying and everybody was kissing and hugging at the Sign of Peace. When he was talking a lot of things clicked for me. I felt like I really found my faith.”

The journey to Australia was not the only hardship. On the night before the Papal Mass everybody slept on the field at the racetrack. It’s winter in Australia and the temperature dropped to 47 degrees. The Philadelphians didn’t have sleeping bags.

“It was freezing cold and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,'” remembers Rebecca Whitlock, also a junior at Wood. But the next day made up for it. “We were going to see the Pope and this was just part of the adventure. It was a great experience. Everybody came together for the same reason,” she said.

Eventually the 32-hour return trip to Philadelphia went off without a hitch, but in the beginning of the pilgrimage, “it felt like the Israelites wandering in the desert looking for the promised land,” said Father Guckin. “The food was lousy and the night at the race track was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for a five-star hotel. The hardship made us come together as a community. I never heard a single complaint the whole time. It was the trip of a lifetime and it’s hard to process it all. There were so many events, it’s going to take months.”

But one thing Father Guckin knows, “I’m looking forward three years to the next World Youth Day in Madrid,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.