September 13, 2011
It is probably around third grade when we all learn that the word Catholic means “universal.” However, I don’t think that many of us really grasp what that really means at that time. For around two million faithful, this word came alive before them during World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain. I have been blessed with many opportunities in my life to travel to various countries and to see an aspect of this universality. Mass in every country really is the same regardless of language. I realized by attending World Youth Day that this is only the surface level of what it means to be one Catholic Church. At our very core we have one message in common: the love of God found through His son Jesus Christ.
The overall theme of this WYD was standing “firm in the faith” by being rooted in Christ and His Church, in solidarity with each other. All of the experiences that I had at WYD pointed me back to the reality of this message. The beauty of WYD is found in the gathering of so many for one purpose. As I walked down the streets of Madrid to any event during the week I could see floods of people with flags from every country imaginable. The pilgrims wore their country’s colors with pride and at every turn you would hear a different language and see a different culture being expressed. Pope Benedict XVI even delivered various aspects of his message in different languages. Reading through the translation of his speeches I could see, however, that the message was one: accepting the gift of faith and living always as a witness to it.
As pilgrims, we were always united in prayer, even if each was prayed in a different tongue. The core parts of our tradition were the same in all languages: the Mass, Hail Mary and the Angelus. However, the unity ran much deeper than this. The most memorable and striking moment of the entire week of WYD events was the Saturday night Vigil, which culminated in Eucharistic adoration. There were around two million pilgrims congregated at the Cuatro Vientos Air Field. Right as the Pope began to read his message, it began to rain heavily. The group that I was sitting with had two umbrellas and one poncho between the ten of us. We were Americans, Dominicans, Italians and Spaniards. As soon as the rain began to fall, we easily began to share what we had with each other. As I looked around, I could see this spirit of sharing happening amongst all the other groups surrounding us. Despite the storm that seemed to be approaching, there was only one sense that could be felt: genuine joy. This same spirit of joy carried all of us through a week of blazing heat and humidity, of waiting in long lines, of running into protesters in Madrid and of arriving in Madrid only to find that our housing wasn’t assigned or that our registration packets weren’t ready. This spirit of joy led to cheering and singing while standing like sardines in the hot sun waiting for the pope to arrive on Thursday evening. This joy carried us all through even the hours that it took to just get out of the air field after Mass on Sunday. It was in this joy that the Holy Spirit was present and it was in this joy that you could see Christ in everyone around you.
The rain eventually subsided and Pope Benedict was able to finish his speech, which was greeted with cheers and excitement. This continued on until the deacon came out onto the stage with the monstrance displaying the Blessed Sacrament. In a matter of seconds, all two million people went silent as the Pope took his place on a kneeler before our Lord. My experience of WYD could be summarized in these 20 or so minutes for it was in these moments that I could truly see what being universal, what being Catholic really means. My entire section of pilgrims could count at least a dozen countries and even more languages. Being universal is not simply about having the same prayers to repeat in any language. It is about sharing a core belief upon which we build our faith and center our lives. In this moment, we were all silently and profoundly sharing in what makes us one. The body had come together to worship its head.
There are many reasons that the Pope invites the youth to gather together in one city every two or three years. It seems to me that the most important reason is to be able to show us our Church, to unite us as one in order to give us the strength to bring the Gospel to all corners of the world. Pope Benedict XVI urged us to have a relationship with Christ, to root our lives in him so deeply that we are able to then go out and share the gift of faith with others. He reminded us that this is not a mission that we are given to accomplish alone, but rather through the strength found in the Church, through the strength found in each other. At the catechetical session that I attended on Friday morning, we met a group of pilgrims from Kuwait. For this group, as for many of the pilgrims from similar situations, WYD was not only a chance to really get to see the universality of the Church, but a chance to simply get to joyfully and openly proclaim their faith and their love of God. For them, this was a chance to gain the strength that they needed to go back to their country and live out their faith in the face of persecution. The theme running through the events of this incredible week was simple: In the face of an increasingly secular and individualistic society, we have been given the gift of faith so that it may be shared and it is this same faith that unites us as one, that brings us together to love and support one another and to joyfully bear witness to this love freely given to us by God to all the ends of the earth.
Undergraduate at the Unversity of St. Thomas
The group that I went with was a group of nine students and alumni from University of St. Thomas headed by Father Mike Buentello and Sister Damien Marie. Father Mike and Sister Damien came up with the idea about going to World Youth Day in Spain about a year ago and started getting a group together to train for the El Camino de Santiago, which we hiked before [we] went to World Youth Day in Madrid.
The El Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage to the burial place of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago. So in order to go to World Youth Day in Spain we had to be a good shape to hike the El Camino, which consisted of almost 200 miles in two weeks. So that is how we narrowed our group to nine. We would hike an average of 12 miles per day in the rugged Spain mountainside and it was challenging. Some of us were limping by the end of it. I personally was not sure if my hip was going to hold out. Eight kilometers into the last hike to Santiago, my hip started to bother me and I still had another 12 kilometers left so I prayed my heart out, “God please if you could let (me) make it to Santiago to see the cathedral. Please give me strength Lord.” Soon after the prayer the pain went away and within 30 minutes it was gone. God really does listen. And while we were in Santiago we saw many people who were going to World Youth Day just like us.
So when we finally got to World Youth Day in Madrid, we were exhausted — walking that many miles in that amount of time really does a number on your body physically. So the first night we decided to recover and rest. The next day a group of us went to Toledo for a day trip to see the ancient city and the amazing cathedral there which took 300 years to build. The next day we went to a park to see all of the different Youth of the World. We meet so many people from so many different countries including: Mexico, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Australia, Lebanon, Iraq and Italy. It was amazing. We exchanged gifts with them too.
That evening we went to the Way of the Cross which Pope Benedict XVI was present