They came in their tens of thousands from more than 160 nations over the world. For a week, the World Youth Day pilgrims turned Sydney upside-down, their enthusiasm on display as they attended public masses, teaching sessions, and scores of other events including a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross.

But what was it that led them to the harbour city? Just what were these pilgrims looking to get out of World Youth Day?


CELEBRATING THEIR FAITH: Some of the tens of thousands who filled Sydney's streets during World Youth Day. 


“They said they wanted a closer relationship with God and Jesus, they wanted to really live what they believe, and to have a stronger sense of what it means to be Catholic,” says Rev Dr Michael Mason, one of the researchers on the joint project.


The Australian Catholic University and Monash University have released the results of a survey conducted before World Youth Day which involved an online survey of 12,275 registered English-speaking pilgrims from 164 countries as well as some interviews and observations made at the event itself.

It found that what pilgrims most wanted out of their World Youth Day experience was a “spiritual experience” and the chance to see and listen to Pope Benedict XVI.

“They said they wanted a closer relationship with God and Jesus, they wanted to really live what they believe, and to have a stronger sense of what it means to be Catholic,” says Rev Dr Michael Mason, one of the researchers on the joint project.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims attended the week of World Youth Day events held in Sydney from 15th to 20th July, including 223,000 registered pilgrims, coming from both Australia and more than 170 nations around the world. 

Rev Dr Mason notes that motivations did differ across age groups. He says that because those the older group of pilgrims - those aged between 20 and 35 years - had generally taken time from work or university to attend, “they were not there to muck about.”

“They were highly committed people, so their approach to World Youth Day (was that) the social stuff didn’t particularly fascinate them. They were there for a celebration of their faith.”

Many among the younger group - aged between 15 to 19 - were still at school and Rev Dr Mason says for many, there was a sense of “adventure” in attending.

“Going to a beautiful place like Sydney and just being part of this gigantic crowd of youth (and) the opportunity to meet new friends - they certainly responded to all those things,” he says.

“We initially thought, ‘Oh, they’re just going to have a good time’ and there would have been a few like that certainly but when we dug a little bit turned out that there was a bit more there than one might have expected. They were also fairly committed - probably not as highly so as the more mature group - but most of them knew what they were doing and they had a relationship with God.”

While this group also included some who weren’t really sure where they stood with regard to their faith, Rev Dr Mason adds that many were “interested to explore a bit further”.

The research also showed that those pilgrims who came from oversees were more likely to be highly committed given the distance and expense of getting to the event.

”It’s a big effort for people who come from a long way away and it’s very expensive to travel,” Rev Dr Mason says. “Usually if they’re being supported, their parish or their school has to back them to attend and it usually doesn’t happen that organisations like that will go to the trouble of supporting somebody who’s not highly motivated.”

He notes that those Australians who attended World Youth Day events generally came from the “more interested and involved end of the spectrum”, adding that among the younger group around half were regularly involved with their local church.

Rev Dr Mason says the survey and interviews are part of a larger project which involves speaking with pilgrims before, during and after the event “really with the aim of figuring out who gets what out of World Youth Day”.

A further large scale internet survey is planned.

“It won’t be until we have a survey of large numbers that we’ll know who got what out of World Youth Day,” says Rev Dr Mason, adding that such data could be used to benefit future youth ministries.

“Also, of course, we’d pass on whatever we learn to Spain - who are holding the next World Youth Day - if they’re interested.”

Rev Dr Mason says that World Youth Day isn’t about those who attended moving from “zero to 100” in their commitment to God.

“For people who were already highly committed - and that’s a high proportion of those who went - it’s an affirming experience, it’s something that strengthens their commitment; their involvement. They often get new insights into their faith; they find new ways of expressing it - it’s all good. But they would have been committed whether they went or not.”

“For us the test of what the whole thing is worth is with the group kind of in the middle who are still looking; who are, I suppose, seekers. If World Youth Day enables them to take a step forward, then it would be worthwhile...

He says that the most important question that remained to be answered was whether significant numbers of young people were helped to make “significant steps” forward in their faith.

“And, if so, what was it about World Youth Day or that week of events that most helped them to do that? And does it take a World Youth Day to do that? Are there other ways in which the same goals of ministry could be accomplished.”