I have never been to World Youth Day before, or experienced anything like it. I’m told that any retreat I have been on before will pale in comparison to the intense, busy and draining time I’m about to have.
I’ve heard horror stories of pilgrims in sleeping bags unable to sleep in crowded school halls. I’ve heard whispers and rumours that temperatures will reach a sweltering 40 degrees. So having heard all these tales why am I still going?
Perhaps it’s because I can think of a million reasons to counteract every one of these dilemmas. 2.5million other reasons, to be precise – the number of young attending World Youth Day. 2.5million sharing in the same faith, the same excitement, ready to see the Pope and to pray and share in the Eucharist together. It’s not often that you get the feeling that you’re totally accepted for what you believe, in fact sometimes it can feel like you’re all alone as a young catholic. World Youth Day promises acceptance, understanding and peace. Peace even amongst all the hype and excitement, noise and crowds.
How do I know this? Well nearly a year ago I met the Pope.
During the Papal Visit last September I had one moment of peace among the bustle and craziness of it all. Delirious from lack of sleep, exhausted from all the running around it came to the Saturday morning Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
Forced to wake at 5am, neither the tiredness nor fatigue abated, but as we all gathered together in the entrance to Archbishop’s House to greet the Pope it hit me. The Pope was about to arrive, and I was about to be within touching distance. No more zooming the camera in to try and get a better view – the Holy Father was going to be right in front of me.
I saw his red shoe get out of the car, and we all fell silent as he walked up the stairs. He was directed to stand in the middle of us. A few clicks and flashes and then he was gone again – just his red shoes clicking down the hall. Although it had been a brief moment out of a long week, it was a moment that resonated deep within me.
Then when I sat down on the cold, wet ground at Cofton Park at 3am, and as we sang in unison during the Beatification Mass I was overcome with an emotion I can barely describe. It was an overwhelming feeling of love for everyone there, for all of the people sharing the experience with me – we all were praising God with one voice.
This August when I’m stood in Cuatro Vientos aerodrome, clutching my prayer book ready for the Mass, I know that I’ll feel the same way. Except this time I’ll be able to share the joy. My year long journey will have come full circle – beginning and ending with the Holy Father. At that moment, even though the Pope will probably be a dot on the horizon, and the best view I’ll get will be via a big screen, I’ll feel as if he’s as close as he was on that Saturday morning. A pilgrimage that began a year ago on a cold September morning will end that hot day in Madrid. That’s why I’ll brave the sleepless nights, sweltering weather and the crowded city, because who wouldn’t want to be part of this?
So everyone can join in and in an attempt to capture all the madness, I will be blogging (www.rcdow.org.uk/wyd) and tweeting right from the start of our pilgrimage in Salamanca, along to Avila and Madrid by coach, and live from the youth festival, letting everyone know about the concerts, theatre, free galleries and our experiences. We’re going to have a great time!
This blog post appeared in The Times Online, Articles of Faith blog on 3 August 2011.