Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Sydney and so have the tens of thousands of young people from around the world. The stage is set for World Youth Day - the largest gathering of young people in the world - which officially kicks off on 15th July and runs through until Sunday, culminating in a final mass at Randwick Racecourse and Centennial Park where up to half a million people are expected.

The idea of World Youth Day goes back 23 years to 1986, when, inspired by the massive gatherings of young people in Rome to celebrate the Youth Jubilee in 1984 and the United Nations International Year of Youth in 1985, Pope John Paul II called the youth of the world to gather with him to celebrate youth and faith. They have since been held in Rome and in other host cities around the world including Manila, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Denver, and most recently, in 2005, in Cologne, Germany.

World Youth Day

THREE YEARS IN THE MAKING: Excited pilgrims at the last World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 look forward to Sydney. 


“It’s an opportunity for young people to look around and realise there are many, many, other young people about who share the same hopes and dreams and ideals and passions."

- Father Mark Podesta, Sydney's youngest Catholic priest.

There are more than 400 free events - including a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross, concerts, dramas, and art installations - scheduled for the six day event which is aimed at young people aged between 16 and 35-years-old.

Father Mark Podesta, who, at 31, is Sydney’s youngest Catholic priest, says the event is all about young people connecting with others from around the globe.

“It’s an opportunity for young people to look around and realise there are many, many, other young people about who share the same hopes and dreams and ideals and passions,” he says.

World Youth Day will be the largest event ever held in Australia, elipsing even the 2000 Olympics. While previous World Youth Days have seen crowds ranging into the millions (as many as four million attended the World Youth Day in Manila in 1995), expectations for Australia are for around 500,000.

That includes 125,000 officially registered pilgrims from overseas - about 15,000 from the US, 10,000 from Italy, 6,000 from Germany and 5,000 from France - and about 100,000 from Australia as well as an estimated 800 cardinals and bishops, 2,000 clergy and up to 5,000 media representatives.

Those numbers are expected to swell even further when members of the general public and others who haven’t officially registered as pilgrims attend.

“(A)ll of the events are open to everyone,” says Father Podesta, a spokesman for World Youth Day, “So things like the final mass - which will be a spectacular event - there’s every possibility that will have over 500,000 at that event alone.”

The official theme of this year’s World Youth Day is drawn from Acts 1:8 - “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”.

Father Podesta says there will also be a strong indigenous theme to many of the events being held as part of the celebration.

“Every World Youth Day hosted in a foreign city has a particular gift or something to give to the rest of the world and I think sharing our indigenous culture is one way that we can give something to the youth who come to Sydney; something different that they haven’t experienced before.”

He says that while some of the events are simply about fun, others - such as the masses being held across the week and the Stations of the Cross - are very much about faith. 

“And then, as well as that, we have forums and talks on things like ecumenism and interfaith relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. We have (events addressing) social justice issues - Vinnies are putting on a World Youth For Justice concert with performers in a group called Empty Hands...(and) there will be an expo on sexuality on life and love and marriage put on by some sisters from the United States. So there’s really something for everyone - with deep messages or simply fun and celebration.”

Father Podesta, who attended the last World Youth Day in Cologne, says that as well as looking forward to seeing the Pope - “just to have him here on our shores is such a wonderful thing - he was also looking forward to being able to walk through the streets of Sydney and see “young people from all around the world chanting and singing and waving flags and just full of joy.”

“The presence of these young people is going to be such an exciting experience.”