Friday, September 16, 2011

World Youth Day 2011

A great European city in the throbbing heat of August, a vast dusty airfield with two million people congregating on it, a dramatic thunderstorm, a night vigil of prayer led by the successor of St Peter – these are some of the ingredients that made the 2011 World Youth Day utterly unforgettable.

The group of young people led by Father Stephen of this parish was a large one: its core was the “Quo Vadis” group which meets regularly and includes young people who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, and they were joined by a substantial number of others. Hospitality in Madrid was offered by a parish on the outskirts of the city – the magnificent church of St Mary of Cana where the priest had arranged that our group could camp out in the various parish rooms for the whole of the WYD events.

Divided into groups, the young people made themselves at home, making up beds on the floor and organising themselves for showers and meals. There was daily morning prayer and Mass, and then the whole range of WYD events – talks at the “Love and Life” centre (including a superb presentation on religious freedom and the mass media, led by America’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and with speakers including the head of the Knights of Columbus), confession at the Festival of Forgiveness in one of Madrid’s large and beautiful parks, an opportunity to explore some of the vast number of religious orders and new movements and charities and Catholic organisations at a Vocations Fair.

What many pilgrims perhaps most relished was the sheer exuberance and joy at being in a city teeming with a sense of Christian love and faith. Here were two million people surging around, from every nation on earth, a multitude of languages and flags and song and experiences. Groups gathered on street corners to sing and pray, to swap flags and badges and banter, to take photographs and to cheer the Pope. Cries of “Viva el Papa!” erupted from groups large and small all the time. People sang on buses and trains and in the streets and in cafes and restaurants. People prayed the Rosary in parks and while waiting in the (extremely hot) sunshine for the Pope to arrive.

And when he did come, what an outpouring of affection and enthusiasm! The crowds lining the streets and packing out the squares were huge – it was impossible to move, and the cheering and waving and rejoicing were on a massive scale. When the Holy Father spoke, however, his clear and rather gentle voice created its own sense of quiet calmness, and his words were straightforward, beautiful, and well worth hearing.

There was a magnificent welcoming ceremony for him – at which Deacon James Bradley of the new Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, who was part of our group, sang the Gospel. There was a poignant and moving Way of the Cross using some of Spain’s most magnificent works of art showing Christ’s walk to Calvary, brought from towns and cities across Spain where they have been venerated for centuries. And then, on the final two days, there was the gathering at the Cuantros Ventros airfield for the night vigil and the final Sunday morning Mass. Heat, ants, fierce sun, and then a thunderstorm gave way to immense peace when the night vigil began. We knelt together before the Blessed Sacrament, and gradually the silence spread out, from the front where the Holy Father was kneeling, through the crowds and crowds of people.

"As you return home, take back with you the good news of Christ’s love which we have experienced in these unforgettable days. Fix your eyes upon him, deepen your knowledge of the Gospel and bring forth abundant fruit!"- those were Pope Benedict’s words at the final gathering.