As stories of young people rioting across Britain, and now, to a lesser extent, in Philly, Chicago, and elsewhere have caused great concern throughout the anglosphere, a different type of revolt is taking place in Madrid, Spain. Young people have poured into the city with great enthusiasm, but these young people, unlike their British counterparts, are not rioting because they are metaphysically bored - they come to celebrate their Catholic faith and to be a light to the world.
I have only been able to attend one World Youth Day in my lifetime, but it was a life-changer. World Youth Day 2005 was held in Cologne, Germany, and I was able to join several hundred ArchIndy pilgrims in Germany. The thing that touched me the most was the global nature of the Church. Having spent most of my life believing that a) as a youngster, Catholicism was something that was unique to my cultural background, or b) in college and beyond, that Catholicism was a small, seemingly insignificant minority in the U.S., so it must be so on the world stage as well - World Youth Day 2005 smashed both of those images.
Everywhere we went, we saw people - tons and tons of people! Train stations were packed to capacity with everyone smashed in shoulder to shoulder, and the wait to catch a train during peak hours sometimes approached an hour. However, instead of the standard frustrations that accompany transportation issues, the train stations echoed with songs, chants, smiles, and Salve Reginas. If you overheard someone speaking in English, a conversation would ensue - I never saw ONE person, the entire week, lose their cool.
One of my favorite moments occurred as I was going to the famous Cathedral at Cologne, and as a friend and I made our way through the crowds (did I mention there were always people everywhere?) we came around a corner and emerged into a town square packed with people, but immediately I noticed silence. I first noticed a lot of red and white flags, and then I noticed that people were holding candles as well, silently all facing the same direction. As I looked to see what they were all staring at, it all came together. On one side of the square was a ten story high photograph of Pope John Paul II (who had just passed a few months earlier), and these were Polish people keeping vigil by an image of their saint. I had read about John Paul II and loved the man, I had read about Poland and the intensity of the faith in that small, oft-abused country, but to see it on display, to encounter real people helped me realize what my mind knew, that what I had read and heard about JP II, his Polish nation, and indeed Catholicism in general was a story whose characters were real people, and the whole experience moved me to tears. I just stood there for a long time taking it all in and joining 10,000 Poles in silence.
The closing Mass was also a powerful two days. Because there are so many pilgrims, the Mass is held out in the countryside, in an area that can accommodate millions of pilgrims. In order to get everyone out there, pilgrims hike miles and miles to get there, and it happens over the course of two days, so most spend the night under the stars at the site where the Mass is held. I have no idea why, but I love flags, and so walking to the closing Mass with hundreds of thousands of people snaking along paths through German fields, all you could see was people and flags. It was so cool to see so many people pouring in from all over the world, making great sacrifices but with great joy. Some see Catholicism as something that robs people of their national identities, but there I was simultaneously intensely proud to be Catholic AND American, just as the other pilgrims seemed to simultaneously rejoice in their nationality and their Catholicism.
WYD 2011 is half way through right now, and many are once again representing our Archdiocese in Madrid, Spain. If you're curious, the following are a couple of excerpts from the Holy Father's first few addresses. As is par for the course - A+ material!
Upon Pope Benedict's arrival he addressed the Spanish delegation: "Why has this multitude of young people come to Madrid? While they themselves should give the reply, it may be supposed that they wish to hear the word of God, as the motto for this World Youth Day proposed to them, in such a way that, rooted and built upon Christ, they may manifest the strength of their faith.
Many of them have heard the voice of God, perhaps only as a little whisper, which has led them to search for him more diligently and to share with others the experience of the force which he has in their lives. The discovery of the living God inspires young people and opens their eyes to the challenges of the world in which they live, with its possibilities and limitations. They see the prevailing superficiality, consumerism and hedonism, the widespread banalization of sexuality, the lack of solidarity, the corruption. They know that, without God, it would be hard to confront these challenges and to be truly happy, and thus pouring out their enthusiasm in the attainment of an authentic life. But, with God beside them, they will possess light to walk by and reasons to hope, unrestrained before their highest ideals, which will motivate their generous commitment to build a society where human dignity and true brotherhood are respected. Here on this Day, they have a special opportunity to gather together their aspirations, to share the richness of their cultures and experiences, motivate each other along a journey of faith and life, in which some think they are alone or ignored in their daily existence. But they are not alone. Many people of the same age have the same aspirations and, entrusting themselves completely to Christ, know that they really have a future before them and are not afraid of the decisive commitments which fulfill their entire lives. That is why it gives me great joy to listen to them, pray with them and celebrate the Eucharist with them."
And from an address to the young people:
"Indeed, there are many who, creating their own gods, believe they need no roots or foundations other than themselves. They take it upon themselves to decide what is true or not, what is good and evil, what is just and unjust; who should live and who can be sacrificed in the interests of other preferences; leaving each step to chance, with no clear path, letting themselves be led by the whim of each moment. These temptations are always lying in wait. It is important not to give in to them because, in reality, they lead to something so evanescent, like an existence with no horizons, a liberty without God. We, on the other hand, know well that we have been created free, in the image of God, precisely so that we might be in the forefront of the search for truth and goodness, responsible for our actions, not mere blind executives, but creative co-workers in the task of cultivating and beautifying the work of creation."