World Youth Day 2011

During the summer, two student brothers from St. Louis, Bro. Thomas Schaefgen and Bro. Jude McPeak traveled to World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, with a group of teens from the Diocese of Memphis.  Below is a reflection on their pilgrimage.


"A great cloud of [smiling] witnesses..."
Estos jóvenes son diferentes.  “These young people are different, they are not like the ones who set fire to London last week,” a local told Brother Thomas when our group of pilgrims from Memphis, Tennessee, arrived in Madrid a few weeks ago. August in Europe was marked by two events involving large amounts of youth crowding city streets.  The first, in London, was devastating.  The riots there resulted in deaths, major property damage (over £200 million), injuries and thousands of arrests. Just as the London riots were ending, thousands of young people were descending on Madrid, Spain.  Although reports attest to something like 1.5 million young Catholic attendees, World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid left a totally different mark from the riots in London.  These young people, hundreds of thousands more than those who rioted in London, were happy.  They had smiles on their faces, rosaries in hand, catechisms in their backpacks and a desire to meet others like them from around the world.  They were willing to endure heat and rain, long waits and walks just to see an 85 year old man, who probably didn’t speak much of their language, but who represented something much greater for them.


The witness that these young people provided was not simply one of joy. They showed Spain their commitment to nonviolence.  On Wednesday night a considerably large group of protestors arrived at the heart of the city and displayed signs, marched, some hurling insults while others were hurling objects and fists.  Rather than respond in kind, many pilgrims prayed, observed, or simply walked away.


While we waited four hours on the asphalt on a perfectly un-cloudy day, hoping to get a glimpse of the pope during the Stations of the Cross, a group of French girls sat next to us.  One particular girl, instead of doing what one might expect a bored teenager to do––pull out her phone and start texting, or iPod and start listening––opened her backpack and pulled out the new YOUCAT (Youth Catechism) given to her as a gift from the Supreme Pontiff himself.


Aside from displaying their commitments to Christian faith and morals, these youth displayed their pride: proud to be united in Christ, proud to be in the Church, proud of their homelands, their languages, and their ethnic identities.  Highly visible during this week of pilgrimage, they were not ashamed of who they are and whom God has called them to be.


Before arriving in Madrid, we spent a day at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.  In the morning we observed people burning large candles representative of their petitions to the Blessed Virgin by depositing them in a great fire.  That night, as we were leaving, we witnessed yet another great display of fire and Catholic faith and identity.  Candlelights flickering in the moonlight throughout the plaza, thousands of people were praying the Rosary––and in Arabic.  These fires were not the fires of riots, war or hatred, but the fires of faith.


Saturday and Sunday of World Youth Day
As I sat, with over a million other people waiting for the pope to arrive at Cuatro Vientos Airport I couldn't help but think of how uncomfortable I was.  I had only brought a few blankets to cover the dirt and straw that lay on the ground, and given my naturally Irish complexion, I had to rely upon sunscreen and my habit to block the intense rays of the sun.  And what was more disconcerting were the silver-dollar sized grasshoppers that wanted to share my blanket with me. 


At least I could take comfort in the thought that thousands of years ago Jesus' followers endured similar discomforts to hear the beatitudes or share a meal of fishes and bread.  As the sun went down, and the crowds excitement grew I could put aside my complaints for the joy of being a part of the youth of the pope.  Of course, right around the time the pope arrived I noticed some dark clouds in the distance, as well as the brief flashes of lightning.  Even as the pope took the stage the winds were picking up and grasshopper sized raindrops started to fall infrequently.  Everyone started to frantically pack up there things and form temporary shelters.  For me this meant that I sat on top of my backpack with a poncho covering my blankets and things. 


The pope prayed that the storms would stop but the rain only persisted.  Eventually the large screen from which we were able to see the pope lost power, and then the real rain began.  The pope's words, and everyone else, were drowned out by the sound of rain.  Soon the winds picked up, and their ferocity blew away anything that was not tied down.  Just like the apostles caught in the storm on the boat, we were all huddled down hoping for a miracle.  I could hear the faint words of a rosary being prayed behind me, and I too pleaded with God.  The rain began to lighten, and I was able to poke my head out from under the poncho.  A group from Ghana that was sitting behind me was already up and standing in the rain.  They were laughing as the water hit their bodies.  Then just like the suddenness of the downpour of rain, people crawled from under their shelters.  The Ghanaians started dancing, clapping, and singing hymns of alleluia.  Soon youth from the French group were dancing, then the Poles, and the Americans.  The rain no longer mattered and rather than complaining about the cold and dampness they were praising God.  When the pope spoke again he had to pause, but only because the cheers of the people were so loud that even the thunder and rain were drowned out. 


This was more than a rally, or a concert, or an excuse for teens to travel across Europe, this was a pilgrimage made by millions of people who wanted to encounter Jesus Christ.  And like the pilgrims of the past centuries, we had to leave behind the comforts of home, we had to endure hardships and suffering, and in the end we were transformed.  Now the question remains, how will we continue the pilgrimage back at home?