Stories from World Youth Day

‘Life changing, inspiring, faith filling and intense’

That’s how three pilgrims from the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle described their World Youth Day (WYD) experience.

World Youth Day is an intense moment of evangelisation that’s hosted every three to four years. It brings together people from across the world who want to bond with others and honour their connection to the Catholic Church.

As the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle undergoes preparations for WYD 2023, Aurora met with Johanna Soo, James Elliott and Stephanie Gill who each shared how their encounter with the Pope at previous gathering inspired their faith and enriched their understanding of the universality of the Catholic Church.

Take the leap of faith and say yes to World Youth Day’

Johanna Soo was just 15 years old when she took her first trip overseas. However, it wasn’t like what most other people experience – she was joined by millions of travellers as they journeyed across the globe for World Youth Day.

Johanna was one of about 70 pilgrims from the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle who visited Italy before attending WYD week in Krakow, Poland in 2016.

She says the experience shaped who she is today. Johanna now works in Youth Ministry as one of the first Youth Ministers in the Diocese and is an active member of her local Parish – Holy Trinity Blackbutt North, DCMYP Council, St Vincent De Paul Youth Services and Adult Conference.

She recalls her favourite part of the experience as being the strong sense of community she felt throughout the trip.

“We all greeted each other with smiles and hospitality, and it was really obvious that we were one family. No matter who we were, where we came from or where we are at in our faith, we belonged. I could see the face of God through the people I met and the stories of faith that we shared together,” the now 21-year-old said.

“There was this one time when we caught the train back to the accommodation- the train was jam packed full of pilgrims and we all sang together loudly with great gusto and joy. It was a very special and uplifting moment when we knew the Holy Spirit was among us and within us. Through song, we proclaimed our unified faith, hope and love for God as Jesus’ living disciples.”

She encourages anyone who can to go to next year’s WYD.

“I think people should take the leap of faith and say yes to World Youth Day,” she said.

“In life there are lots of ups and downs and challenges along the way, but the experience of World Youth Day has fuelled a fire in my heart that continues to burn brightly today,” she said.

“The experience allowed me to make meaningful connections other young people of faith, learn about faith and has gifted me with the mercy, strength, and confidence to overcome anything.

“With God I know nothing is impossible. I can trust in the Lord – He’s got my back.”

 ‘It really reaffirms what it means to be a faith community’

James Elliott has been lucky enough to attend four World Youth Days – Sydney, followed by Madrid, Spain, another in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and his most recent - Krakow, Poland.

“Each World Youth Day is quite distinct in what is on offer but there are common elements,” he said.

“Every trip showed me where our local faith sits within a global church community. I ended up recognising our similarities but also the things that make us distinct as a local church.”

James added that it motivated him to become more involved with his parish.

“After going to Sydney, it inspired me and a couple of my friends to get a youth ministry off the ground in our parish,” he said.

“And then again after Madrid, we came back and tried to get things started on a Diocesan level and that led to the creation of the Diocesan Council for Ministry with Young People (DCMYP).

“World Youth Day calls on you to be active participants instead of passive observers of religion.”

Just like Johanna, James encourages pilgrims to make the most of the opportunity.

“It’s challenging, it’s rewarding, and you’ll make some lifelong friends – World Youth Day is a fantastic experience,” he said.

“Despite the perception that it is this big, loud event there are also some fantastic opportunities for quiet reflection that lead to growth and spiritual development.

“There is something on offer for everyone and it really reaffirms what it means to be a faith community.”

‘It changes who you are for the better’

For the last few weeks Stephanie Gill has been messaging every young person she knows to encourage them to take part in WYD 2023.

Ever since she attended WYD in Krakow, Poland she’s been an advocate for the worldwide encounter.

“It was a life changing experience, I only have purely positive memories from it,” she said.

“The people that you meet, the friendships that you make and the experiences that you have together as a group are amazing.

“It changes who you are for the better. It is a moment of encounter with the living Christ in our Church today.”

Her piece of advice for people who go is to get involved in everything on offer.

“Go dancing in the street until 2am with pilgrims from all around the world – just join in and do as many different things as possible,” she said.

“Be present and take in moments to bring back to your actual life. It will fill up your spiritual cup.”

A highlight for Stephanie is the day they had Mass with Pope Francis. After a gruelling eight hour walk, he lifted everyone’s spirits.

“We walked for such a long time in these tiny streets in Poland,” she said.

“It was so intense and exhausting, but when we finally got to the camp and let go of the day, Pope Francis us all together as one as he presided the most beautiful vigil Mass.

“You felt defeated after this eight hour walk but then everyone changed because of the atmosphere.

“Pope Francis was trying to encourage us to be the change makers – he basically said get off the couch, go out and leave your mark on the world, and choose to live life fully.

“We are the protagonists in history.”

If you’re between 18-35 years of age, you’re invited to journey with the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle pilgrims as they prepare to gather for an unforgettable period of prayer, worship, and celebration. The group will depart for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in July, and then move onto Lisbon to take part in WYD festivities in the first week of August, where they will be joined by the Pope and thousands of young people as they celebrate their diversity and faith.

For more information or to apply to the once in a lifetime experience, visit

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