In the Afterglow of World Youth Day

World Youth Day continues to cast its glow over Catholic life for many here in Britain. Today, I cycled through cool, rainy London suburbs to the Holy Ghost church in Balham where the parish priest, Fr Stephen Langridge, is also the Vocations Director for the diocese of Southwark (which covers all of London south of the Thames, together with the counties of Kent and Surrey). He led a big team of young pilgrims to WYD: it was centred on the Quo Vadis group, which brings together people who are thinking about a call to the priesthood or religious life, but was opened up for WYD to include many others who simply wanted to come along as it was a good group to join. There were a good number of seminarians in the group and they provided a strong core – literally a real heart – to the team of pilgrims. Today at Mass we gave thanks for World Youth Day, and afterwards some of us lingered to chat and swap memories.

As I made my way to the main road and the Tube station, I was hailed by a couple of young voices – more WYD pilgrims who had seen me and wanted to catch up on shared memories. We ended up having a long, talkative lunch together: laughing over the horrors of the giant grasshoppers – and the ants, ugh, the ants! – at the big airfield in Madrid where we gathered in that terrific heat, remembering the friendships forged in long conversations with people who had been strangers not long before, swapping stories about moments of inspiration or important lessons learned…

Something that I have come to understand is central for young pilgrims at World Youth Day is simply the delight and joy of being among people with shared values. “I don’t feel so alone now.” “It was great to be among people who, like, understand.” “It was fantastic not to have to keep defending ordinary human values, but just to have them recognised and accepted.” These are all the sorts of comments one hears. It’s not that the young pilgrims want to co-exist only with people of like mind –quite the contrary. They relish the reality of living in a large, complicated and exciting world. But they seek to explore their ideas, relationships, and hopes with others who show respect and kindness and who don’t dismiss religious faith out of hand. They find the company of young fellow-Catholics delightful, fun, exhilarating. They don’t expect to talk seriously all the time – but they relish the opportunity to pray together, to have social time together, to relax in one another’s company.

At World Youth Day, in a crowd of two million youngsters, there were agreed moral norms that were the more prevalent because they were not endlessly announced. There was no drunkenness, fighting, sexual debauchery, or even noticeable bad language or displays of anger. There was a lot of talk, laughter, music, dancing, joking, and fun – plus many small kindnesses, much care for others (especially, for instance, in coping with the great heat), and prayer. The atmosphere of Madrid in those days was so full of joy and friendship that it was absolutely tangible – the whole city felt happy and open-hearted.

Email and Facebook and so on will help to foster friendships made, but I think that actual get-togethers are really more important. No use trying to fabricate a formal reunion meeting in a church hall – the best reunion will be centred on the things that make WYD so special – prayer, being with God, being together in his love. Many good things will flow from the days of August in 2011 in Madrid.