Traralgon teen takes on World Youth Day

Global get together: Traralgon teenager Zahra Hanratty attended this year's World Youth Day in Portugal. Photograph: Liam Durkin



TALK about a long way from home.

As if standing among 1.5 million people in the capital of Portugal wasn’t daunting enough, try doing it all on your own.

That was the experience for Traralgon teenager Zahra Hanratty, although fortunately for her, she had something in common with the millions of people worldwide who gathered in Lisbon.

The occasion was World Youth Day – a week-long global event celebrating the Catholic and Christian faith.

Stepping well outside her comfort zone, the 17-year-old took the pilgrimage, and with it, a figurative and literal leap of faith.

The youngster has been home for a few months now since the event concluded in early August. With a chance to reflect on the journey, Zahra said it was a truly memorable experience.

“It was surreal, just the amount of people,” she said.

“It was a crazy journey, I’ve been in the church my whole life, and it was just really exciting to go from St Michael’s Parish (Traralgon) to the ‘World Parish’. I didn’t realise how big and how amazing the actual event was until I was there.

“It was just a lot of fun … amazing, I made so many lifelong friends.”

As Zahra explained, the journey to Lisbon started out from little more than curiosity – and some encouragement from her mum and St Michael’s Parish Secretary Jenifer Hanratty.

“Mum works in the church so she found out about World Youth Day, she asked me if I wanted to go and I was like ‘why not?’,” Zahra recalled.

“I didn’t know anyone going into the event, but we had the opportunity to get to know others in some information sessions before leaving.”

After deciding to commit, the challenge was then to raise enough money as the operation needed to be largely self-fund.

While most kids her age might be saving money for a car, Zahra instead put her focus on paying for airfares and accommodation to the other side of the world.

Needing to do so in a relatively short space of time, Zahra sold chocolates and held morning teas after Mass at St Michael’s Church.

That’s a lot of chocolate.

The teenager found no shortage of support from those in the local community, something she was eternally grateful for.

“The parishioners of St Michael’s Church were so generous, they donated a lot of money,” she said.

“It was lots and lots of flights. We went to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and then we flew to Istanbul (Turkey) and then we flew to Madrid (Spain), and then bussed all the way from Madrid into Fatima where we stayed for two nights.

“We visited Fatima, a sacred sight where hundreds of thousands of people visit and light candles every night to pray for loved ones. I was in awe at the amount of people who visit the site where Mary appeared to the three children in 1917. It was just crazy, 800,000 people were there that night singing and praying.”

Flying with a group from Melbourne, Zahra was eager to take in all that World Youth Day had to offer.

A festival-like atmosphere greeted the foreigners, as concerts, dancing and opportunities for prayer never subsided.

Among the many highlights, Zahra said the opportunity to mingle with like-minded people from other countries, as well as sightsee around historic Europe stood out.

“That was one of my highlights – interacting with so many young faithful pilgrims from all over the world whom were from all different cultures,” she said.

“There was a bit of a trading system happening, I took souvenirs from Australia, like pins, key chains and little koala toys, and everyone traded with people from other countries.

“I came back with an arm full of bracelets, lots of pins, it was amazing to see so many countries represented and expressing their faith joyfully in the streets of Lisbon. Everyone flew their countries flag with pride and I carried our Australian flag and had fun getting signatures from so many young people that attended.

I learnt French at school so I got to try out my French skills but also learnt some Portuguese phrases. Everyone was so friendly and the streets of Europe are so beautiful. The food was pretty good – Portuguese tarts I would recommend.”

She also met someone pretty famous.

Pope Francis honoured World Youth Day attendees with his presence, receiving a rock star reception as he drove through central Lisbon in the Popemobile.

Zahra estimated being about a metre from his Holiness as he drove past.

“It was a thrill, I didn’t realise how much of a hype it was until he was really there,” she said.

“Everyone was screaming, singing and trying to get closer to Pope Francis and I’ve been surprised by how popular he is. I got back to school and lot’s of people asked me if I met the Pope, they wanted to know about my experiences, I didn’t really think it would be that big of a deal, but it’s really broadened my perspective.”

Pope Francis delivered a number of sermons, with Zahra commenting the 86-year-old “looks younger” in real life.”He only spoke Italian – that I’m aware of, but he can speak a lot of languages. We all had radios and there was translators on all the channels so we could understand what he was saying, it was just a bit tricky, but I learnt so much,” she said.

Also amazing was the amount of security.

“There were snipers on the top of every building, it was a bit scary, it took us hours to get into the actual place when he was arriving. We had to go through three gates checking our bags, checking us,” Zahra said.

The event was not without its challenges, as attendees were faced with 40 degree heat some days, as well as the sheer coordination of groups of people among so many hundreds of thousands.

Despite this, Zahra said her Melbourne-based group was afforded a great deal of independence.

Each day she attended sessions on Christian teachings, concerts, Church and prayer services, and had many opportunities to network.

“Everything was optional, you didn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to do, but we of course wanted to do everything.”

Still sporting wristbands from her time in Lisbon, Zahra said it was indeed a worldwind experience.

“I came from Traralgon and I attend Church weekly, but talking about God was never a topic of conversation around my peers. But after seeing how big the Church is and how many people have a similar experience and belief to me, it really opened my eyes and has given me a greater confidence in what I believe in,” she said.

The youngster has kept in touch with those she went to World Youth Day with through a group chat, and has become “best friends for life” with three girls her age she spent most of her time with in Portugal.

The next World Youth Day will be held in Seoul, South Korea in 2027, and Zahra is already adamant she will be attending.

Imagine how many chocolates you could sell in four years.

Represent: Zahra (right) with Australian friends she met at the event. Photograph supplied
Sea of people: Millions gathered for World Youth Day. Photograph supplied