Making a Pilgrimage for the Pope

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Benedict XVI admires the Sydney sky.

Between events at World Youth Day in Sydney, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, many of the Roman Catholic pilgrims shop for souvenirs, call home on their cell phones or sip cappuccinos at outdoor cafes. Others, however, find that money is tight. For Cyprian Mekendu, just getting to Australia took a miracle of sorts. Like many young Papua New Guineans, he has no paid job. He lives by selling vegetables from his food garden outside the capital, Port Moresby. But, says the volunteer youth worker, he never gave up hope: "Jesus said, 'Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.' Before I came here I said, 'Help me to go, God, so I can proclaim your Word. And He did it for me. I came here."

Not instantly, though. It took two years, a lot of fund raisers and many pleas for donations before Mekendu and 13 others from his parish finally had their fares. Now they're camping in a Catholic-school hall. It's the first time any of them have been to Australia. "It's really overwhelming," says Mekendu, who's wearing a woolen beanie and a couple of T-shirts under his track suit; it's also his first experience of winter.

As Patricia Nyalusi follows the reenactment of the Stations of the Cross on Friday, she waves a handkerchief-sized Tanzanian flag. At home in Mbeya, in the country's south, "I never dreamed of such a big journey." From her small wage as a hospital lab technician, she supports both her parents and three younger siblings. But friends who went to the last World Youth Day, in Cologne, Germany in 2005, inspired her to aim for Sydney. She sees the pilgrimage partly as a thank-you to the missionaries who put her through school and college. "I put something aside each month for two years" to save the fare, Nyalusi says. She has no regrets. "Australia is very beautiful." More important, "I have learned how young people of all different cultures follow our faith." When she goes home, she says, "I will be a new person."

Mekendu wants his visit to Australia to benefit the young people he works with, too. Many are on the path he says he once took — of idleness, alcohol, drugs and crime. "I was in their shoes and I have come out," he says. "Now I want to help raise them out of bad activities." He's had some successes: three of the youths in Sydney with him are ex-prisoners made good. The World Youth Day experience has made him want to work even harder. "While I'm here, I can't just do sightseeing," he says. "I have a vision. I must go back and do something powerful for others, reach out to the young people who are really down. My little community will be expecting something great from me." If making the trip to Sydney took a miracle for pilgrims like Mekendu and Nyalusi, it might create some miracles back home as well.