Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Australia - The Return Trip

So it’s all over except for the cleaning up. God knows what the Randwick field must look like this morning, I’d guess that there will be lots of tarps, sleeping bags, and other contributions for the local charities. For our part, we had until 11 AM to get ourselves ready and I availed myself of the time to sleep in a bit and then to process pictures and begin composing the blog text for the past day(s).

When it came time to pack, I’d decided to leave various items (sleeping bags, etc.) behind for the Brothers to use as they saw fit and stuffed the rest of my things into the luggage I’d brought. Thank God for expandable suitcases.

The group met at the picnic table at 10:30 AM where we had morning prayer together followed by some reflections from Br. Peter and others. Pete got kind of choked up, as well he might, when he described what this experience had meant for him. Br. Rich and myself made some comments of appreciation as well, followed by a couple of the guys in the group. In the end, Br. John, the principal of the place, came along and spoke with us a bit, and then it was on to another group shot and let’s load up the bus. Several Brazilian students joined us on the bus as well.

At the airport we let the guys know what Pete had told Rich and myself earlier today – our scheduled flight had been delayed by a couple of hours. This may impact some of the connecting flights for people but we’ll make the best of it. We stood in line to check our luggage in and get our seat assignments, each of us trying to get at least an aisle seat in this fully booked 747. One in our party tried to persuade the Qantas agent that he needed a seat with lots of leg room because of his recent orthoscopic knee surgery – a bogus story, of course, but the person involved would no doubt simply call it a "dialogue." It didn’t quite work, although he did end up with a bulkhead seat. What people won’t do for a good seat on an airplane.

We had a couple of hours to kill and they wouldn’t let us into the gate area until an hour or so before the flight. So groups found places to eat or simply to sit. Rob and Eric had brought along a copy of the Staten Island Advance – their local paper – in order to take a couple of pictures showing them and the paper at the airport. Apparently, these photos will then be published by the paper in their travel section. We took pictures overlooking the airport, in front of a Sydney wall poster and even on the tarmac itself. One of those should make it in, I suppose.

There were two international terminals, with a bus ride in between them, and most of our little sub-groups found their way over to both. I went to the other terminal with Rob and Eric to see if we could use the Red Carpet Club, the United Airlines club that I belong to this year. It was an Air New Zealand lounge that had contracted with the Red Carpet Club to provide Red Carpet Club service at the Sydney airport.. However, we were rejected by an older, fake-smile, insistently polite guard lady because my ticket was with Qantas, which is not a Star Alliance member. This hadn’t happened to me at SFO in the past and I told her so, but no amount of argument would do and we weren’t able to get in. The guys with me had certain unkind observations about the lady involved, but I think I’ll just let my membership lapse after an experience like that.

On the way over via the bus, we passed a Singapore Airlines A380, the brand-new double-decker plane. It was being towed to the main runway for its flight. What a monster that one is! We didn’t see it take off but it almost seems too large to do so.

Back at our terminal it was simply a waiting game. When we finally were able to board, my aisle seat (66D) was towards the end of the plane while the rest of the group was seated around row 52, except for the bulk-head kid and Br. Rich who’d gotten an aisle seat in the very last row of the plane. Toward the end of the boarding process, two smiling young nuns in full traditional getup came down the aisle with their luggage. They were seated in the last row along with Br. Rich. However, within a few minutes they were coming back down the row with their luggage. I found out later that they’d been upgraded to first class, so now Rich could have some empty seats to stretch out in. Here’s a good example of “the last shall be first" for these nuns. I’m sure that the Sisters appreciated the experience, since it's one that they would never be able to have on their own volition. Maybe I’ll wear a robe the next time I get onto a plane. At least I wouldn’t be trying to bluff my way to a better seat because of orthoscopic surgery.

The flight was long, long, and long. Qantas did a fine job of trying to make us comfortable, with regular food services, snacks, and liquids. But I found it almost impossible to sleep in a seat that reclines back only 20 degrees or so. Thankfully, Qantas has a whole variety of entertainment programs available on individual screens. I watched “The Bucket List” and several documentaries, followed by listening to various classical CD’s while I tried to read. The noise-canceling headphones helped as well, but I developed a pretty serious head-cold kind of thing (toothache-like face pain, strange drainage, loss of hearing on the one side, etc.) that is only now gradually disappearing. After fitful sleeping, some walking around the plane, and a bit of prayer, we finally landed at SFO around 2:20 PM, a couple of hours before we left (crossed the international dateline).

After processing through immigration, those who were scheduled for a Continental flight at 3:15 PM to NYC sprinted for the luggage terminal hoping that their luggage would be among the first off the plane. That way they might still make their connection. Qantas had already made accommodation for missed connection flights because of the later departure and those from NYC found out that they’d be on the 10:10 PM flight on Continental. Meanwhile, I’d taken care of Roberto’s Southwest flight online in Sydney, switching him to a later one this afternoon, and Logan would have a later flight to Portland as well. It’s the guys from the East Coast that had to scramble around a bit. Rob and Eric had hoped to be able to grab the early Continental flight, but Rob’s Australian didgeridoo took a long time to come out on the luggage carousel. The upshot was that Br. Rich and the others made the Continental 3:15 PM flight, Roberto and Logan were all set on later flights, Brendan was on a 11 PM United flight to NYC and had received a free hotel room at the Hyatt nearby plus some meal vouchers, I was hanging around to make sure they were okay before hooking up with Chris Patino who had come to pick me up, and Br. Peter along with Rob and Eric were too late for the 3:15 PM flight and were now booked for the 10:10 PM one. Pete managed to get hotel rooms and meal vouchers for them as well. It took a while amidst the hubbub of the airport to figure all this out – using cell phones, passed-on messages, and a little guessing – but it all worked out.

After reaching him by phone, Br. Chris Patino met us at the Continental airline desk, where the others checked in their luggage. Then we made our way to the Burlingame Hyatt where Br. Pete got a room and Rob and Eric got one. Chris and I met them in a sports bar in the hotel and we proceeded to relax a bit. By around 5:30 PM Chris and I had to leave because Chris was giving a talk at Saint Mary’s College as part of the workshop for young Lasallian leaders. We said our goodbyes and drove to SMC. I wanted to stick around for the talk, but it was all I could do to concentrate on driving. I knew I would never last through any talk, no matter how good it might be. ,So I dropped Chris off and drove back to Napa where I brought my luggage into my room, set it down, and then did "crashed" onto my bed, falling asleep more quickly than I’d thought possible.

As a last reflection on this whole experience, let me say that it was a wonderful, intense experience of both “church” and “community” - one that was in many ways transformative. During our two weeks together, it was a privilege to form community with young people who were serious about their faith life and appreciated their Lasallian formation. They sort of reminded me of myself during the later years of high school. Being able to seriously pursue your faith life within a community of like-minded individuals is a real grace, and I think that despite the little problems and challenges along the way, we grew to appreciate one another to a degree that wouldn’t have been possible if this had been simply a camping trip or a “tour” or even a class. This was a pilgrimage and we were blessed by being pilgrims together. As time goes on, I’m certain that each of us will recall different things. But all will recall the quality of our time together and the multiple ways that God’s grace came to be discovered along the way. Those seeds will grow more deeply with time and will bear fruit in ways yet undiscovered. It was an experience of the theme for WYD 2008: 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.' Acts 1:8

Pictures, as always are at http://picasaweb.google.com/gvangrie

Australia - The Longest, Last Day(s)

I will be combining the two last days into one entry. For me, for us, this was a single and singular experience. Today, the morning after, it’s all a bit of a blur for me, so writing it all down will help process the whole thing.

The first thing to be said is that I had made the decision on Friday not to join the rest of the group for their departure at 4 AM on Saturday morning and this was a good thing. Three of the guys wanted to join me in coming later but Br. Peter wisely determined that they would all go together on this pilgrimage. I spent the whole morning processing photos and writing the two blog entries for the previous days (okay… I also slept in a bit), finishing around 1 PM. Then I packed up my stuff, put on my robe (with lots of clothes underneath), stuffed more things into one of the bright green WYD food bags I had snagged (air mattress, reading material, sweatshirt, etc.), slung my backpack and sleeping bag over my shoulders, and set off on my own little pilgrimage to the Randwick Race Course, a horse-racing venue that had been co-opted by the government (much to the consternation of horse-racing fans, apparently) as the only appropriate venue for World Youth Day.

I’d decided to take the “long way” over the Sydney Harbor Bridge (about 10 km), especially since they’d closed the bridge in order to accommodate all of the pilgrims, along with a bunch of city streets. I knew that this plan was iffy because it was later in the day, but nevertheless I’d take advantage of the opportunity.

There were very few people on the train into Sydney, so most of the pilgrims must have already gone on their way to Randwick. By the time I got to the Milson’s Point stop on the other side of the bridge, perhaps 20 – 30 people got off along with me to walk across the bridge. It was a short walk outside the train station and up some stairs to get to the bridge. Once up there, I found that they had “closed” the closed road about three minutes before I arrived, and I saw the brightly-vested line of volunteers down the road that marked the end of the last pilgrim group. So my walk across would not be on the roadway – which remained fully without cars throughout – but rather on the normal walkway on the side. Still, it was a fine day and I didn’t mind.

Almost as soon as I’d started my walk, a man walked up beside me, offered to take one of my bags, and introduced himself as an Anglican priest on his way to St. Mary’s Cathedral (that would be the Catholic one) for a visit. We walked together for a couple of miles, having a great conversation about all things church and art and pilgrimage, until we got to the cathedral. By this time, I couldn’t quite make out how to get to Randwick. Asking a couple of roving policemen, they’d replied to my inquiry: “You’re not going to walk out there are you?” They suggested I take the train to Central Station and go from there. It was only one stop from the nearby Museum Station, but it would probably be best to follow directions in this case. Walking to the nearby train station I saw a bus that said “Randwick Junction” so I got onto that and went one stop before discovering from the bus driver that I’d have to walk 20 minutes from Randwick Junction to get to the race course. So it was off the bus and back to the station.

Arriving at Central Station, things were well marked and organized. Streets outside of the station had been blocked off, and large displays told us how far we’d have to walk. Folks along the way encouraged us with megaphones and the like. Locals watched us and cheered us on from outside caf├ęs, upstairs windows of apartment buildings, and the front steps of houses. I’m sure they’d rarely seen so many people walk down their street – streams and streams of them and all pretty happy and fervent. Along the way I stopped to get a bottle of water and again the locals were friendly and helpful, even to this strange guy in a robe. On the road, there were a number of people I chatted with, including one young man from Jerusalem who’d graduated from our school in the Old City, and a young pilgrim from Brisbane who’d come to Sydney to be part of this unique event simply because it was being held here in Austalia.

Several miles later I arrived at the race course and proceeded to search for section E4, the section number on my pilgrim passport. They wouldn’t let anyone in who didn’t have such a passport and there was a security tent where they went through everything you’d brought with you, followed by walking through a phalanx of police with sniffing dogs. After a good twenty minutes of searching I found our group well established in the front corner of section E4, with a straight line of sight to the altar area half a mile away, but also near one of the large screens distributed all around the field. They showed me my “spot” and I sort of settled into this new abode for the next 24 hours or so.

Rob and Eric had put together a nice little tent for themselves, while the rest of us would tough it out in the open, most of us on air mattresses and some on the ground. I’d arrived around 4:30 PM or so, having picked up a pilgrim bag with food on my way in, so I ate a little bit, taking in the mass of humanity around me. The Brothers told me that just before I’d arrived the group next to us (from Texas) had invited us to join them for Mass on a cardboard box altar. I’m sorry that I missed it. Apparently the liturgy was quite special for all those involved, including the folks who were walking by, saw what was going on, and promptly plopped down to join in. Live church.

Rich had gotten ill within a few hours of arriving at Randwick this morning and he had been brought to the nearby infirmary for some hydration, rest, and medication. I joined Br. Peter as we spoke with various folks in order to find out how to get to the main infirmary where he had been brought. Several conversations later we made our way to an area below the grandstand and found him watching TV and feeling a lot better. The tests that they took hadn’t returned yet from the lab but he was free to go, as long as he stayed warm. The doctor spent a bit of time making sure that he would do okay sleeping outdoors, but eventually he was released and we went back home to E4.

By this time the evening vigil had started. Gradually, thousands of candles were lit as the prayer began. Boxes of them had been left at the various sections. It was quite amazing to see that many candles swaying with the music or just keeping people a bit warm. At one point, the pope popped out on stage through a hidden door and led the rest of the vigil, delivering a longish but excellent talk about the Holy Spirit in our lives. The vigil ended with a full-blown Benediction service, including the most monstrous monstrance I've ever seen. It must have been 5 feet wide or more. The amazing part for me was to see so many people kneeling on the grass in devotion during the benediction service. Who would have thought that something like that was possible?

At the end of the vigil, when the pope had popped back into his area below the stage – perhaps with a white sleeping bag awaiting his night’s rest? – several hours of concert began. To the relative surprise of we Brothers, all of the guys in our group were soon in their sleeping bags and fast asleep, or simply trying to keep warm. The three of us sat in our portable chairs (remember that trip to K-Mart a few days ago?) and enjoyed the concert, laughing at the fact that it was us old guys who were still up. Peter wrapped himself up in his sleeping bag, robe and all, while Rich and I made our own arrangements for sleep. By the end of the second concert we were also encased in our sleeping bags, and to the sounds of the rosary being said in a combination of languages over the speakers we gradually drifted off to sleep.

I awoke several times during the night because of the cold and the relative discomfort of sleeping out like this, but the ear plugs and the extra sleeping bag draped tent-like over my head seemed to help pass the night more comfortably. Every once in a while, the noises of local groups singing loudly or simply talking it up would wake me – it seemed as if that was going on all night – but then I’d drift off again.

In the morning, about 6 AM or so, I woke up, decided I wouldn’t fall asleep again, and got up. I was a feeling a bit grungy, had wax stains on my robe from the night before, and was amazed that I had survived the night relatively unscathed. After putting my robe back on, along with anything else I had to keep me warm, I had a walk around the place, took a few pictures of folks – including one guy who was trying to keep warm by burning leftover candles from last night – and watched the sun come up.

By the time I’d gotten back to our group, most of our guys were up and around. Br. Peter and I accompanied Rich to the main health center behind the grandstand to see how the tests had come out from the night before. We found out that wiith the great crowds, they hadn’t received the results, but the doctor looked at Rich and pronounced him much better, which Rich confirmed.

At 8 AM there was morning prayer for this intimate group of about 150,000. It was well done, with a choir of seminarians leading us. But it seemed that most people in the crowd were either dressing, eating, going back and forth to the toilets, or the like. Some of us had our little liturgy booklets out and were singing along as best we could, but we seemed to be the exception. Right in front of our E4 section, a group from Uruguay had set up shop last night along half of what was supposed to be a walkway, so we were no longer in the front of our section, and this morning an elderly group from the Catholic Italian Federation of Syndey joined them in the space that remained, with a couple of elderly Italian women – decked out in their finest and their hair just so – passing out coffee from thermoses and Italian cookies to anyone within reach. So our previously clear view was now partially obscured. But then again, it’s all part of the experience and we’d just have to stand a little taller to look beyond them. Besides, the screens were sufficiently large that things were pretty clearly visible.

A little while after the morning prayer service, I decided to make my way towards the front just to see how close I could get. I found out that wearing the robe helps because a couple of times the volunteers, decked out in their bright uniforms, would simple say “Good morning, Father” and open the gate. I didn’t argue or correct them (Is this the sin of omission?). Pretty soon I was up at the front, right where the race track – kept clear throughout the event – turned into a lane going up to the altar. As I’d surmised, this would be a good place to catch a glimpse of the popemobile. The large contingent of NSW (New South Wales) police along the perimeter of the track was another hint.

An hour or so later, security folks began to rush around and talk to one another on their radios, and while the folks coordinating the pre-Mass show (music, singing, and some talking) were doing their best to keep the crowd’s attention, we could see on the big screens that the Holy Father was about to enter the racetrack. The crowd grew more excited and began pressing up against the railings. As predicted, when Benedict arrived he did a full circuit of the track and then half around again to go up the main lane where I had planted myself. So I saw him go by twice, with people cheering and taking pictures. I’m not big on cheering but I did take a number of pictures. When I thought about it later, it seemed funny that so many folks take pictures on occasions such as this, since the newspaper pictures were much better. I think it’s simply a matter of being able to say “I took that picture. Look how close I was.” Or something like that. Anyway, I took some great pictures. Look how close I was!

I watched as the popemobile turned into the lane and stopped some distance towards the altar where a baby was handed over the barricades and brought to the pope for a photo op. Although kind of hard to see, one of the pictures I took shows the little kid in mid-passing with a what-the-heck-is-going-on expression on his face.

The pope vested in a tent just in front of the altar and pretty soon the grand procession made its way up the inclines and to the sanctuary area for the final Mass. Once that procession started I negotiated my way back to E4 – it was quite a distance – and I joined our group, some of whom (won ‘t tell you who in order to protect the innocent) sort of half-slept through it all.

During the homily, one of the women in the group in front of us gestured me over and asked how many priests were in our group, because the two vested priests standing in the passageway in front of us needed more Eucharistic Ministers. I told her that we were Brothers but that we’d be happy to help out. She relayed that to the priests who immediately made “Yes, yes, of course” gestures and I told Br. Peter and Br. Rich that we’d been commissioned to help out. We took off our coats and hats, disinfected our hands (one of the kids had a bottle of the stuff) and went to the front where the priest spread us out at various places along the walkway in front of section E4. The other priest carried a large plastic container filled with a number of ciboria containing consecrated hosts.

We stood there in front of the section as the liturgy proceeded. After the Lamb of God, the priest came over and gave each of us a ciborium with hosts, telling us that we could start distributing communion after he’d come over and given each of us communion. So at the appointed time, that’s what we did. I turned around, asked the people in front of me to clear some space and form a line, which they quickly and quietly did, and proceeded to give communion to all those who approached.

This, for me, was a grace-filled conclusion to WYD and a profoundly moving experience. People of all colors, dispositions, races, ages, and dress came forward. A number of them, for example, were Chinese from China, and others were clearly from Slovak countries. I began to notice the variety of hands that devoutly took the host – some hard working hands, others soft, others wrinkled, others small and tender – and the expressions on the faces of many of the young people who came forward. Most took the host in their hands, but about 10 – 15% took the host on their tongue (a bit tricky, that). Some knelt in the grass before taking the host. A number of kids from our own group came over to receive communion from me, these kids whom I’d gotten to know and grown quite fond of. One father asked me to bless the young boy he carried with him. In the middle of this vast crowd, estimated at 400,000, here I was an agent sharing the source of our common faith, the reason we were all here, in a reverend atmosphere in the midst of an Australian racecourse, to people whom I could honestly say I loved in one way or another. It was enough to make anyone choke up, which indeed happened to me as I was returning to our section afterwards. And when I talked with Peter and Rich about this afterwards, they said that they experienced the same thing. For us this was a wonderfully surprising capstone to our WYD experience.

At the end of Mass there were a number of thank-you speeches. Cardinal Pell was short and sweet, but some other cardinal went on and on and on. He was head of some Vatican office for the laity, Italian, and apparently eager to use this singular opportunity in the limelight to best advantage. Instead of this elderly cardinal making conclusions about how significant the whole thing was for the young people, I would have liked to have seen them pick two or three young people out of the crowd before Mass to share their appreciation extemporaneously. Yes, I know. Dream on.

At the end of the speeches, Benedict XVI had the last word. Most people were eager to here where the next WYD would be, something that's traditionally not announced until the very end. When he came to the end of his short talk, he paused dramatically and announced that he will meet us all again in (another dramatic pause here) Madrid in 2011. Loud cheering, especially from the Spanish folks, followed by a beeline for the exits. Our group took a picture of ourselves there on the field – the “official” WYD photo for us, as it were – and then we split up into smaller groups to make our way out. The rule was maintained that no one should be by themselves. A couple of our guys rushed to the exits, pretty much sprinted to the front of the line, and ended up getting back to Bankstown way before anyone else. Good for them, I guess, although I never quite saw the point. The group I was part of (Br. Peter, Br. Rich, and Brendan) made our way out at a normal pace, enjoying the crowds and camaraderie. Again, the thing was very well organized. We didn’t have to stop or wait much anywhere along the line. When we finally got to Central Station some 5k down the road, they’d organized things so that each train to various destinations had its own entrance. Soon enough we were on the train and on our way home.

Once back in Bankstown, Peter had decided that we would have a final dinner together at the Sports Club in downtown Bankstown, the same place where we’d been earlier in the week, and so we trooped down there after a chance to clean up (Boy, a shower sure felt great just about now) and had dinner together at the grill. At the conclusion, different smaller groups decided to spend the rest of the evening in different ways. One group went into Sydney for some really nice late meals (think kangaroo meat and the like), another stuck around the Sports Club and ended up dancing and singing in their Karaoke lounge, and our small group (Peter, Chris, Brendan and I) stuck around the place for some relaxed conversation, desert, and reflection on the whole experience.

When we got back to the Brothers house at the school, I didn’t try to pack up since we’d have time to do that tomorrow morning but just moved right into a blessed and sound sleep.

Note: There are a whole bunch of pictures for today at http://picasaweb.google.com/gvangrie