Suddenly, my time at World Youth Day has drawn to a close. A week of my teenage life, spent in a country I hadn’t been to before, with food I hadn’t eaten before, and people I hadn’t met before, and yet it was the most enjoyable experience I ever had. I will remember it forever – the memories, the experiences, and the strengthening of my faith.
We (myself and my 20 year old brother) were greeted with quite a shock after flying out from a damp and dreary Gatwick on the morning of Monday 15th August, to high-30s heat reflecting off the runway at Madrid airport. Heading through the airport, it was apparent that we were about to take part in something huge. There were banners and posters up everywhere advertising ‘JMJ2011’ (JMJ are the initials of the Spanish for ‘World Youth Day’), but these were hidden from view by the hundreds of pilgrims picking up their luggage from the carousels. There were Brazilians, Americans, Canadians, Chileans, French and many others. I had never seen such a diverse mix of people, and we hadn’t even made it out of the airport terminal.
After travelling on the metro filled with excited Brazilians for half an hour, we arrived at our destination. We alighted and, after consulting my printed road map, we arrived at our accommodation, and found our room. Deciding to then walk into Madrid at 3pm was a mistake, as the temperature had reached about 38 degrees. We swiftly concluded the best course of action was to sleep under a tree in a large park in the centre of Madrid.
Meeting up with the rest of our 130-strong group of young people from the Portsmouth Diocese that evening, we went out to get dinner. Despite the fact there are hundreds and hundreds of cafes and restaurants in Madrid, we ended up in Burger King. One positive outcome of this was the pint of ice cold Coca Cola for 1 euro.
On Tuesday, our group travelled back to the park in the centre of Madrid, and met many hundreds of other pilgrims. There were various stands and marquees in which different groups of people from across the world, for example nuns and missionaries, were talking about their lives and other things. That evening our group travelled to the centre of Madrid, to watch the opening celebration hosted by the Holy Father. We ended up sitting on a large roundabout (the traffic in the city centre had mostly been stopped), and watched the celebration on a large screen. The heat in the large crowds was immense, reaching up to 40 degrees. Several ambulances were constantly passing, picking up people suffering from the heat.
The next morning, Wednesday, we travelled to a 12,000 seat arena for the first of three catechesis sessions we would be having during our time in Madrid. It was preceded by a Catholic rock concert, in which everyone sang along to the songs. The speeches in the catechesis session were extremely enlightening, as well as moving. Throughout the morning, there were priests dotted around the stairways of the stadium, to which people could go for confession. There was also an area in the basement of the stadium which had been converted to provide an area for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. After the catechesis session came a mass, concelebrated by the hundreds of priests that had come from all over the world. That afternoon we had free time in Madrid, and we returned to the arena (again!) for another Catholic concert.
Thursday began with another catechesis session in the arena. The talks again were very interesting, and it was, once again, followed by a mass. That afternoon we travelled to the site outside Madrid’s town hall where all the pilgrims would be welcoming the Pope again. There was a party atmosphere, with people of all nations dancing and talking to each other. We sat waiting for about four hours, and when the Pope arrived the pilgrims erupted shouting chants. The Holy Father hosted a small celebration, and then left back to his accommodation. As we were walking out, we came up to a closed road with a few people lining it. People started running, and we realised the Popemobile was just seconds away. We ran to the road, and saw the Pope pass just a few feet in front of us.
On Friday we had the last of our catechesis sessions. It involved talks about love and relationships, and then we had our final mass in the arena. Myself and a press officer from our group then travelled towards the area of Madrid where the Stations of the Cross were being displayed. They were dotted along a major road, and finished at the Town Hall, where the Pope would, once again, be presiding. We managed to get just a couple of rows back from the very front, and were within 40 metres of the stage. As a pilgrim, the time spent waiting for events to start is as enjoyable and exciting as the event itself. This wait was no different. Despite language barriers, we managed to say evening prayers with two Swiss ladies, an Italian priest and a nun from the Democratic Republic of Congo – the prayers were in a mixture of Italian, English and Latin. As the Way of the Cross neared the Town Hall, the Pope said a few prayers and gave a Homily, regarding the hardships that young people across the world face, and telling us not to give up hope.
Saturday was the eve of the World Youth Day itself. After having a small mass in our accommodation, we began our journey to Cuatro Vientos (Four Winds), an airfield on the outskirts of Madrid. We travelled by metro and then had an hour walk, all the time being joined by hundreds and thousands more pilgrims. It was at least 42 degrees, and there were people on their balconies throwing water onto us all to cool us down. By the time we reached the airfield there were literally hundreds of thousands of people heading through security. We arrived at our designated area and set up ‘camp’, as that was where we were staying for the next 24 hours. The heat was reaching unbearable levels, and as we were on an airfield there was no shade apart from umbrellas and other sun protection that we had brought with us. There were at least four fire engines driving round spraying water over the hot pilgrims. Like on Tuesday, ambulances were constantly travelling around with their sirens blaring, picking up people severely suffering from the heat.
As evening drew near, clouds started gathering. At first these were a blessing, as they provided shade, and thousands of people cheered when they covered the sun. However, it soon became apparent that a storm was brewing. The Pope arrived and began his welcoming celebration, but in the distance we could see thunder and lightning. As the Pope began his homily, the heavens opened. The winds also picked up and blew his skullcap off. The Pope had to retire to an area behind the stage while the storm raged. People were sheltering under plastic sheeting that had been used earlier in the day for shade. Everyone’s sleeping bags and other things were soaked through. However, after ten minutes or so, as suddenly as the rains had started, they stopped. Thanks to the constant heat, even during the night, everyone dried off quickly. The Pope came back out and finished his Homily, and then explained how he would return to his accommodation that night, and celebrate mass with us in the morning. Throughout the night, there were areas around the airfield where people could worship the Blessed Sacrament, and groups of people were walking round singing and dancing all night. I had heard that so many people had tried to come to the airfield that they had had to turn many people away due to capacity issues – there was in excess of 1.8 million people at the airfield.
The morning of the actual World Youth Day, Sunday, we awoke to a clear blue sky. The Pope returned at about 9 o’clock, and mass followed. In it he explained how he had not stopped thinking about us all night, and he was truly grateful for us all coming to Madrid. After mass, another speech followed, and during this he announced the venue of the next World Youth Day: Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil, in the summer of 2013. Following this, all the pilgrims began filtering out of the airfield, and we began our 26 hour coach journey back to Reading. This was a perfect time to reflect on the week’s events – as well as catch up on sleep!
I would strongly recommend all young people to participate in World Youth Day. It was an absolutely amazing experience, and, despite what major news networks would lead you to believe, we saw no protestors. All the Spanish people were very welcoming, and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world were very friendly. It was a remarkable journey in faith united with so many others from around the world, and we are grateful to the people of St Francis Parish for making it possible for us to experience it.