Being a World Youth Day witness 11 years on

By Claire Brown, 20 November 2022
Parishioner Claire Brown (second left) is seen during her lunch with Pope Benedict XVI during the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain. Image: Supplied


A World Youth Day pilgrimage can bring experiences you never imagined, as Claire Brown found out.

I experienced my first taste of what a pilgrimage would be like at World Youth Day Sydney, 2008.

I, along with 350,000 pilgrims from here and around the world, attended the final Mass which Pope Benedict XVI celebrated. It was an unforgettable time.

When the Pope announced that WYD 2011 would be in Madrid, Spain, I remember thinking very clearly, “I wonder if I’ll be there?” and praying about it there and then.

Turns out God had some amazing things in store for me on that journey.

Not only did I attend WYD in Madrid, but I also had the great privilege of being chosen, with eleven others, to have lunch with Pope Benedict!

The Pope was a very kind, humble, gentle person who showed such care and concern for the youth of the church. Meeting him was incredible and certainly a highlight of my pilgrimage. Although, God’s hand in that circumstance has been even more incredible. He has used that experience for me to be able to bless and witness to many people over the years.

Another highlight for me was experiencing over three million people gathering together to celebrate our faith. When my pilgrim group first arrived in Spain, we spent some time in a town called Cáceres. The parishioners there made us all feel so welcome. It felt like a home away from home. There were the older ladies preparing home-cooked meals, the parish dads being our tour guides, families inviting us into their homes and the local priests hanging out, playing games and praying with us.

What really struck me was that even though our cultures were so different – a lot of us didn’t speak Spanish and most of them couldn’t speak English – but our faith and connection with God surpassed all of that. We are all the same in Christ. We share similar joys, struggles, heartaches, and triumphs.

It was also a wonderful experience sharing the journey with my pilgrim group. It was great getting to know them, hearing their stories and sharing the same experiences together.

Pilgrimages aren’t always easy. Sometimes we think that a pilgrimage will be a holy, adventurous time where nothing goes wrong and we become enlightened and grow deeper with God.

Don’t get me wrong, that does happen. But there were a lot of times when it was hard and exhausting.

We sometimes got on each other’s nerves, things didn’t always go to plan and there were sicknesses and injuries. We were reminded a lot that we were on pilgrimage, not a holiday, and to offer everything up as prayer.

Of course, with those struggles also came many wonderful times. From the amazing moments when the Holy Spirit touched our hearts in so many different ways, to playing games, sharing meals and many discussions. We were all so blessed to share it together.

Pilgrimages don’t stop affecting your life once you return home. I had many profound moments on the trip, but also so many when I got home. It took years to process and unpack the journey.

Even though it’s been 11 years since Madrid, I’m still seeing the effect of it in my Faith and walk with God and my ministry with the youth and young adults of our parish and diocese.

Also witnessing the effect it has had on the other pilgrims, many of whom have taken incredible steps in their various vocations.

I encourage anyone who is discerning going on a pilgrimage to go for it! To be able to journey and experience God in new and deeper ways is something that you will never regret.

Claire Brown is a parishioner and youth ministry leader at St Finbar’s Parish, Glenbrook.

The Diocese of Parramatta pilgrimage to the 2023 World Youth Day is Lisbon, Portugal, takes place over 22 days from 21 July to 11 August. Across four countries, young people will travel in the footsteps of incredible Saints who changed the course of history.

To find out more information about the Diocese of Parramatta pilgrimage to World Youth Day or to express your interest, visit

For parish and youth-based enquiries, contact James Camden, Head – Mission Engagement on

This article was originally published in the 2022 Season of Creation | Spring 2022 edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine. You can pick up your copy of the magazine in parishes, schools and offices across the Diocese of Parramatta now or you can read the digital version here.


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