I’ll Never Forget These Days!!!

Glorious singing, the high spirits of youthful crowds, the intense heat, the swapping of badges and emblems between people of different countries, the huge beauty of a great Spanish history soaked in a rich Catholic culture of centuries, the joy – the joy!

World Youth Day is such a rich mixture of images and events that all your correspondent can do is to highlight just a few of them. The fun and friendship as groups of young people break into song on the trains, the dancing in the streets and squares, the friendship of the people in Madrid in shops and cafes, the delicious coolness of the park where priests are hearing confessions and people gather to pray in the great Tent of Adoration where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved…

The night vigil at Cuatro Vientos began with our walking out from the city, through dusty scrub and sudden stretches of pleasant suburbia – where kind people leaned out of their windows to greet us and to pour down glorious cool splashing water onto our dusty hot faces and bodies, to shouts of “Gracias!” and “More, more!” Cuatro Vinetos is a vast great airfield – no trees, not a hope of respite from the fierce sun which bore down on us all with terrifying force. Frankly, hearts sank as we realised this was our home for the next 24 hours, the ghastly heat, the ants and other insects, the prospect of trying to bed down on the thistles and thorns and dust. And where was the water? A – mercifully short – water shortage made spirits sink even lower.

But with the evening came rain for which many of us had been praying – and what rain! A dramatic thunderstorm, and zigzags of lightning darting down on us…the prayer-vigil was interrupted, people darted to cover themselves with whatever they had to hand – what was going to happen! And it was in this storm that Papa Benedicto, as we had by now all begun to call him using the Spanish form of his name, came into his own. Would he give in to the undoubted wishes of his monsignori entourage and quietly leave? No way. He stayed. He stayed with us, and as the storm abated, there he was, like us, battered but unbowed, and he joked with us and calmed us, and took us with him in prayer to the Lord…the whole vast airfield of well over a million (fastly approaching two million) young people knelt as the Blessed Sacrament was placed on the altar, and hearts opened up to the presence of Jesus Christ.

I am trying very hard to write in a brisk and reasonably objective way about all this, but I really can’t, because it was such an intense experience. As long as I live, I will remember that time of prayer, that great silence, the presence of the Pope leading the people of God in faith and unity…and then, after a night sleeping out under that sky in the blessed coolness after the rain, the great Mass the next day.

I’m now writing this back at home: after the drama of the closing 24 hours of World Youth Day, we had a quiet day with a visit to Avila and a delicious lunch and a great standing ovation of thanks for our group leader — Fr Stephen Langridge, vocations director for the diocese of Southwark – and a happy evening gathering with a presentation to our kind hosts at St Mary of Cana church in the suburbs of Madrid, and then a beautiful final night prayer together. And World Youth Day came to a gentle close…except that it hasn’t, because its memories will remain for a long, long time and already the young people in our group are talking about Facebook and get-togethers and plans for Rio, and more…