By Nancy Wiechec
Catholic News Service
WOLLONGONG, Australia (CNS) – Where in the world is Wollongong?
The Gong, as locals call it, is 60 miles south of Sydney, on the way to World Youth Day 2008.
It's where more than 2,000 pilgrims from around the world will spend the Days in the Diocese, the pre-World Youth Day event that will bring young people face-to-face with local Catholics and the Aussie way of life. Nearly three dozen dioceses will open their churches and homes to the pilgrims, sharing meals and prayer time with them July 10-14, before World Youth Day, July 15-20 in Sydney.
The Diocese of Wollongong includes the picturesque coastal city on the same name, with wide views of the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding land offers green, grassy pastures, wooded forests and rocky beachscapes. In the Gong, when someone says, "No worries, mate," one instantly believes in that sense of well-being and peace.
"Pilgrims from overseas who visit Wollongong can expect to be welcomed into the community with open arms and to experience God's love," said Kass Hobbs, 21, a Wollongong native and cathedral parish member. "Australia has a vibrant atmosphere in the making for World Youth Day."
Hobbs and her fellow parishioners will welcome young Catholics from the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, Savannah, Ga., Stockton, Calif., and Waterville, Wash. Pilgrims also will arrive from Italy, Scotland, Indonesia, Colombia, Canada and other countries.
With financial assistance from Wollongong, about 20 youths are coming from Kiribati, a remote Oceania nation of multiple atolls. A little more than half of Kiribati's populace is Catholic.
Following a tradition of Days in the Diocese, the youths will participate in a local social service project. A Mass in the local sports arena is also on the agenda. Topping off the celebrations will be a large outdoor Australian barbecue – complete with aboriginal-inspired music, a chance to try out rugby – the country's most popular sport – and an opportunity to meet a kangaroo or two.
This is "a cultural exchange in the context of faith," said Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham at a press conference in late September.
He said the young people will discover a relaxing yet faith-filled atmosphere in Wollongong.
"We are more laid back," he said, "but our faith has an intensity."
Despite its rather small size, the Wollongong Diocese has a strong commitment to young people, said its bishop.
With 31 parishes, it has 29 Catholic elementary schools and 14 high schools. Its youth notice board lists at least a dozen youth Masses, youth groups and youth leadership trainings as well as events targeting teens, such as the upcoming Battle of the Bands, slated for November.
Last year the diocese hired its first full-time youth and young adult ministry coordinator, 26-year-old Christy Honeysett.
She said World Youth Day planning has been gathering a lot of momentum in the local church, especially in youth ministry.
"There is a real spirit of excitement," she said.
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