In Sao Paulo parish, Australian pilgrims welcomed like family

By  Lise Alves, Catholic News Service

SAO PAULO - For thousands of young people, the week preceding World Youth Day was their first experience meeting Catholics of other nations and cultures.

A group of young people from Australia spent Mission Week, as it was called, interacting with parishioners at St. Jude Thaddeus Parish in Sao Paulo.

"The welcoming we have received here in Sao Paulo and at this parish has been overwhelming," Father Peter Zwaans of Adelaide told Catholic News Service July 18.

Father Zwaans is part of a group of 17 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Adelaide and the Diocese of Port Pirie who joined 16 other pilgrims from the Darwin Diocese at St. Jude's.

"The youths are between 18 and 34, and include teachers, seminarians and priests," said Lisa McCormick, coordinator for the Adelaide-Port Pirie group.

Hannah Stavrou, 18, was the youngest member of the group. She said she was struck by how differently people in Brazil practice Catholicism.

"During the very first Mass, I was amazed by the number of young people attending. There was a lot of chanting and dancing," she said, smiling.

"The overall joyfulness was captivating. I didn't know they (worshippers) were so lively," she added.

The group spent the first day walking through the Sacred Heart of Jesus Community, known as the Mauro Community. But even with the depressing slum-like conditions, Stavrou said, she was surprised with happiness of the population as a whole.

Following the group quietly was Jacinta Crocombe, the only Aboriginal pilgrim from the Murrinh-Patha tribe. Crocombe said little, preferring to wrap herself in the Aboriginal flag she brought from home. She stayed close to Melissa Anderson, a teacher who works with the Aboriginal population in the Northern Territory.

With a little coaxing, she told CNS that although she attended the World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008, this was the first time she had traveled on large airplane.

"This is very nice," she said. "Catholic missionaries came many years ago to our community, and there are many Catholics in my tribe, but they could not come."

On July 18, the group visited an orphanage and an institute for children, both run by the parish. The orphanage currently holds 22 children, ages 5 months to 17 years, placed there temporarily by the courts until the Brazilian justice system decides their fate.

At the Father Gregorio Westrupp Socio-Educational Institute, 360 children ages 6-16 attend afterschool activities and receive educational help. The Australians spent the afternoon playing with the children and trying to learn a few words of Portuguese before heading to Rio de Janeiro July 21.

Many of those who are going to World Youth Day for the first time have been turning to Father Zwaans for guidance. In addition to being a veteran of the Sydney celebration, he traveled to Toronto in 2002.

He said World Youth Day celebrations can actually change a person's life.

"It was at the World Youth Day in Toronto that I found my calling," he said. "When John Paul II told us that if we felt the calling for priesthood not to be afraid, I knew that was what I wanted to do the rest of my life."

McCormick said World Youth Day promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and she hoped the young pilgrims would be able to take back to their parishes some of what they have seen and felt in Brazil, especially since their region did not have a lot of Catholics.

"I hope that these young people go back to Australia, talk about their experience and attract more to the calling of God," she said.

According to the Pastoral Research Office at the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, 25.3 percent of Australians and 22.7 percent of Australian Aborigines are Catholic.

Father Zwaans said that in Sao Paulo, during Mission Week, the young people learned their first lesson.

"The welcoming we have had at this parish is a sort of welcome you receive from family, not from acquaintances or just friends. This shows us that the church is indeed a family," he said.

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