In the early hours of Sunday morning with my forehead pressed against the window of the Vietnam Airlines flight, the southern hemisphere stars faded from view as a rainbow of colours beckoned in the first sunrise over Australian soil I'd seen since December of2006. It was a beautiful sight from 20,000ft above the red centre of Australia & the only thing I could think of was how far away Brazil now was... and how close my friends & family were. The flight touched down at Sydney airport an hour behind schedule but thankfully the 50-odd friends who were waiting to welcome me home had stuck around. It was a tad embarrassing when a couple of the guys pulled out guitars & began singing U2's "With or Without You" in full-voice, but I was so happy to see everyone after all this time & to simply be with them again that there singing simply provided atmosphere. It took nearly an hour to say hello to everyone & remove ourselves from the building. As I stepped out of the airport terminal the first car to drive past me startled me as it headed past on the 'wrong side of the road' with the driver on the 'wrong side of the car'. I was home, but it was feeling a little odd & dare I say 'foreign'. I climbed into the Pannell family van & we drove off to our first port-of-call, Sunday mass. Martin (the dad) has an ability to ask 100 questions a minute & he was on fire. For the first time in my life though I was able to keep up with him. He had so many questions & I had so many stories to tell! We soon found a midday mass at a small church in the centre of Sydney & found the last two remaining seats, right up the front. Steve Toohey, The national director of Youth Mission Team Australia (my old stomping ground) also arrived with his family & so we all took our place in readiness for the service. Now, to set the scence, throughout almost the entirity of the walk from Brazil to Spain, two retired couples, John & Margaret Pollard and Charles & Beth Fivaz, had emailed me weekly with words of inspiration & encouragement. I'd never met them, they'd simply heard of the walk & decided to become active participants. Charles & Beth lived in Melbourne and John & Margaret lived south of Sydney where, as far as I understood, they attended the local Anglican Church. Along the seat I'd sat down in were a heap of kids, then myself, Steve Toohey & an elderly couple on the end. The Pannell & Toohey families (7 children between them) were very 'active' in waiting for the start of mass & providing a few laughs along the way. All of a sudden the elderly man leant across towards us & enquired, "Steve?". Steve stopped what he was doing & stared at the man for a split second before recognising him, "Uncle John!" Steve laughed, "What are you doing here?" Uncle John & his wife, Margaret, happened to be in Sydney & had been looking for a mass to attend. They'd stumbled across this small church in time for the midday service & decided to attend. I was staring at them thinking to myself, "Surely not. It couldn't be them." John then realised I was staring at him & for a short period stared back until he enquired of me, "Sam?" It was him! We greated each other with a lot more timidity than perhaps we would have liked to but considering our position at the front of a packed church some sort of discretion called for. Talk about God's perfect timing. We'd been on this journey together for so long without ever meeting face to face & then finally, without any planning, we finally met while attending my first mass on home soil. John, Margaret & I had watery eyes as the mass began & it was with much thanks to God that we entered into it. Following the mass I was whisked off to an appartment in the centre of Sydney, which had been hired for me for the duration of World Youth Day as a welcome home gift from a group of '4:01' friends from both Australia & overseas. It was rather... nice. It was very up-market & close to the World Youth Day venues. I was incredibly grateful. I only had an hour there before needing to scramble off to the first media engagement for World Youth Day with a television crew. The following day I was off to ABC Radio for a 30min interview about christian unity & the walk but most of my time was spent preparing speaking material for the four main 'gigs' for the week. The first speaking engagement was on Tuesday morning in Sydney's Hyde Park with the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community (with whom I'm a covenant member) at the World Youth Day Cross & Icon tent. That time was predominantly spent finding friends & family (my brother Chris was there) & trying to name my friend's children who looked absolutly nothing like how I remembered them. Mind you, they didn't recognise me either. I'd brought a tub of chocolate ice-cream with me to the tent & found Rev Dave Callaghan to sit down with & share the spoils. Rev Dave was, in effect, my email spiritual advisor & all-round logistics guy throguhout the entire trip. Two spoons & a tub of Ice-cream was a satisfying way to wrap up this 'little' pilgrimage. The following day I made my way down onto Australia's iconic Bondi Beach for the Franciscan run "Come to the Water" Unity concert. The forecast for the week had been for showers but not a drop of rain fell. It was blue skies & warm sunshine pretty much all week long & Bondi Beach looked fantastic on the Wednesday afternoon. Around 15,000 people rocked up & I was wide-eyed as I sat backstage with Fr Stan Fortuna, a famous rapping Franciscan from the Bronx, and the incredible Matt Maher & his band. The whole night centred around our common unity in Christ & it was an up-lifting event. Ben Galea, the event co-cordinator, had even organised for a few thousand '4:01' wrist bands to be prduced for the evening & so with half the crowd wearing the wrist bands I was able tell a few stories & continue the invitation to pray for unity. Thursday night saw me walking out across Sydney Harbour Bridge to the north shore for a speaking engagment with the Jesuit run Magis Event. Their evening was centred around prayer intentions & so I was asked to speak about my various intentions throughout the walk. Although I walked & prayed for christian unity, I also prayed for those I met, for the individuals & the communities, those who welcomed me & those who mugged me. Everyday my prayers seemed to change in some way so there was plenty to talk about. My brother & most of the pilgrims from my home state of Tasmania had also travelled across the bridge for the event & we celebrated at the end of the night as one of the students from St Patrick's College (my old school) launched into the College hymn, "Oh Patrick Hail!". Very quickly the strong contingency of St Patrick's students, past & present, were joining together in full voice. I'm glad we stopped at the end of the first verse though because I'm still a little hazey on that 2nd one. It was as the chorus was dying down & the crowd was braking into social chatter that I noticed a young couple staring at me & smiling. I thought they were just randoms so I smiled back & continued meeting with the Tasmanian pilgrims, but then it hit me like a tonne of bricks as to who I had just smiled back at. I swung back around with my jaw nearly touching the ground. It was Damian & Tatiana Burger! A little over 12months earlier I met Damian & Tatiana in Costa Rica & they had taken the literal steps to be the first people to walk a day with me. It was on that day that we were set upon by 4 men with knives & stripped clean of all we had. Now that's a bonding moment! We'd kept in touch since but seeing them face-to-face again was priceless. As I crossed Europe Damian had emailed me a few times asking me to pray for them, that they would be able to begin a family, so it was even more of a "celebration on the spot" as Tatiana patted her tummy proudly & introduced me to child number 1. A little baby Burger... that'd be McJunior wouldn't it?? :-) It was fantastic to see them again. Coming home & meeting so many old friends from prior to walking & so many new friends I met along the way was such a blessing. I also ran into people I'd met in the USA, Canada, Poland & Austria! That evening I walked back across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with my brother, Chris, his girlfriend, Mercedes & my old cricket coach, Luke. The city looked amazing at night, particularly with thousands of pilgrims filling the streets. Friday was the biggest day of my WYD schedule as the MC for Receive the Power Live. The stations of the cross wound its way through Sydney, concluding at the main weekday venue of Barangaroo. One hour later we were on in front of around 70,000 people with a momentus baptism in the holy spirit evening that was simply awesome. Hillsong, Matt Maher, Bishop Joe Grech & most notably, the blessed sacrament. It was an incredible night for unity. It was a joint event of the Catholic Charasmatic Communities & Hillsong (an internationally renowned Pentecostal Church) combined with the prayer support of many christians from nearly every corner of the christian church in Sydney. Speaking in front of 70,000 people sure was a long way from Brazil, but I was more than happy to be there. A huge congratualtions to the event manager, my good friend Kristen Toohey, who also helped to get the Walk4one rolling. Thanks Kris (and Pete gilmore!). On Saturday afternoon I said goodbye to my flash appartment & trekked out to Randwick Racecourse with around 400,000 other pilgrims to find my little spot in the crowd for the Final Mass sleep-out. Just before the evening vigil began I met up with an old friend & we sat & chatted for hours about our seperate paths over the last 2years to get to this point. I doubt I've ever been more relaxed & content in all my life as I was that night, and that's no exageration. I didn't sleep particularly well though. It was cold & the Polish pilgrims, somewhere up the back, sang all night long! The final mass the following morning was beautiful despite being viewed through tired, weary eyes. With a final flury of good-byes over half a million people who had gathered for the mass set off through the streets of Sydney for their home cities & countries. I needed to travel over 1000km to get back to Tasmania so I teamed up with friends Paul & Mark and after a short train ride, we picked up Paul's car & headed south through the night. We took it in shifts & eventually arrived in Melbourne at close to 4am. I think. From there, Mark & I said goodbye to Paul & caught the plane across Bass Strait & finally, after so much time, touched down at home. It was fantastic to see my family again & comforting to look out across the farm once more. I had initially indicated to friends & family that I would be home in Tasmania for 6months but as I touched down in Australia the call to mission work was already pulling at me. No sooner had I landed & I'd accepted a position back with Youth Mission Team Australia working as a team manager 3500km away in the west Australian city of Perth. I spent 2 weeks at home on the farm where I built some soccer goals, helped my dad build a 2km fence & generally enjoyed being home again before packing my backpack. On the final Sunday before flying out to Perth I travelled in to the city of Launceston to go to mass with my mum at the Church of the Apostles. My feet are still pretty bad from the walk so it was with a slight limp that I entered in among familiar faces & sat down. The inside of the church hadn't changed while I'd been away & yet, somehow, it looked very different. Perhaps the change was my own? As Fr Richard began reading the Gospel I was filled, more than ever, with a great sense of this particular missionary journey being drawn to an end. Within the Catholic Church there is a three year cycle of readings so that, every three years, pretty much all of the bible is covered. As I sat listening to Fr Richard read I began to smile as I recalled the last time I'd heard this particular piece of scripture; it was in Mebourne in 2005 at St Benedict's Catholic Church. Fr Tony, an MGL, was reading & I was sitting in the pews, having not paid attention for the first part of the mass because I was distracted. My mind was racing. Only an hour before hand I'd read about the division of the church, the body of Chirst, and been so moved by it that it would in time draw me deeper into prayer & into a journey that was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. My ears pricked up during the reading of the Gospel & it was as though Fr Tony was speaking straight to me. And so it was, three years later to the day, as I sat alongside my mum in my home parish that my ears pricked up once again.
Matthew 13:44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field."
Three years ago I had no idea of exactly what I was 'buying' into, but it is with incredible joy & complete thanks that the doors were opened to 'sell everything' and simply walk with God. It's also with a tad sense of sadness that I log off now for the very last time, though, I have to say, I am very relieved to finally have my life out of the microscope & to be able to throw myself straight back into the missionary field - my home. A book is in the pipeworks, so please keep an eye out for it around Easter 2009. Whether there is a book or not thoguh, more importantly, please continue to pray for the unity of christians, particularly at 4:01 each day. May the Lord bless you and walk with you through life & may we all be united as one, in truth and in love. Amen, amen.