What It’s Like Being At World Youth Day

Madrid in the full heat of summer, a relentless heat. And the city has been invaded by over a million young people from every continent on the earth – they are meeting in groups to pray and sing, waving their (often vast) national flags, shouting “Viva el Papa!”, dancing, beating out a rhythm on drums, strumming guitars, flopping down under the shade of trees to sleep, gulping water and splashing their heads and faces under the rows of drinking fountains that have been set up for them, cramming into the Metro and getting everyone there to sing, waiting for hours and hours in the heat with apparent good humour to cheer the Pope to the echo. World Youth Day has drowned out any critics with its sheer joy and exuberance, its witness of real faith and the touching, sometimes truly enchanting, goodwill and enthusiasm of its young pilgrims.

The big group from South London with which I am linked for this event is based in a church in the suburbs. Conditions for the accomodation of the young pilgrims are adequate but in no way luxurious. It is hot and this is uncomfortable, especially at night in crowded rooms when you are sleeping on improvised mattresses on the floor. But the atmosphere is one of goodwill and good cheer.

The day begins early with Mass, the group has been taking part in some good sessions of talks and catechesis: a question-and-answer session with Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury was especially popular and they loved his openess, his willingness to answer all their questions, and the way in which he conveyed the truths of the Faith with a sense of conviction and quiet enthusiasm. Each afternoon sees a departure, with flags and singing, by tram and Metro, to one of the big events that are the central focus of this huge gathering.

Last night, we greeted the Pope on his arrival – and what a greeting! The streets were packed, the the plaza where a great stage had been established was already full by midday. Great screens conveyed TV images of what was happening and when Papa finally arrived by Papamobile, we followed his journey moment by moment and then, with an almost overwhleming amount of cheering and singing and chanting, we hailed his arrival among us as he greeted us from the great platform.

A moment of history that most among the crowd would not have noted: When the Gospel was proclaimed, it was done by a Deacon from the newly established Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Deacon James Bradley has a fine singing voice and chanted the Gospel beautifully, the clear English words ringing out over the great packed square with its thronging thousands and its flags and banners and streamers. Then, the Holy Father spoke to us, that quiet, calm and now familiar voice with its grandfatherly tone – all spontaneously broke into applause as he began, just out of sheer enthusiasm for him.

Make no mistake — this World Youth Day is sending a message to the government of Spain; the Church here is alive, and the young people love it and see their lives and future as bound up with it. To the older generation in the Church: Look, the young love the Faith; they don´t have hang-ups about it. They see the message of Popes John Paul and Benedict as one that unites the Church of today with the saints and heroes of times past and urges courage and commitment for the future. The young people here aren´t gathered to deliver these messages. On the contrary, they are here just to pray and celebrate the Catholic Faith. But their presence and their joy has its own massively powerful messages all the same.

Doubtless when they go home, some will talk about the inadequacy of the showers or the crowds on the trains. Others will tell of the friendships made at mealtimes as groups gather for lunch or supper. (There is an excellent system for meals: restaurants and burger-shops and cafes across the city display simple stickers which show that they accept the vouchers for meals with which we have all been issued in our special WYD knapsacks.) Others will remember going to confession in the big Festival of Forgiveness in the park, where literally hundreds of confessions are being heard daily at white confessionals beneath the trees. Others will talk of late-night singing sessions, or long quiet times of prayer, or too-long waits for Papal events under a too-hot sun.

But all will remember World Youth Day, and most, with a great many glorious memories that they will cherish and pass on.