Festive cheers: Some of the three million young pilgrims who welcomed Pope Benedict to World Youth Day 2011
World Youth Day concluded at the final mass with Pope Benedict and three million pilgrims today in Madrid.
A final pilgrimage, evening vigil with the Pope, and morning send-off mass are the climax and signature events of World Youth Day. Last evening at the pilgrimage site, the Quatro Vientos military airport in Madrid, almost one million young people were left outside of the site as record numbers of pilgrims arrived, and the site capacity of two million pilgrims was met and exceeded.
I was one of the pilgrims caught outside, waiting for a chance to get in. As we waited and milled around I was struck by the behaviour of the pilgrims. As almost one million pilgrim groups were turned away from the gates, after having travelled from near and far, these groups calmly received the news, and sat down in circles to pray, to sing, and to play together. Pilgrims from Africa joined pilgrims from Madrid in the task of waiting peacefully for what might happen next.
Surprisingly, what happened next was a snap sand and electrical storm, which tore through the site destroying temporary chapels, and the tenting and camping sites of the pilgrims. Lightning lit up the sky and a torrential downpour drenched the young people and their sleeping bags. In the midst of this, a path suddenly opened up among the volunteers and police, and, while hundreds of pilgrims streamed out, hundreds more streamed in. I quickly found some cardboard to protect against the rains and wind, and huddled in a makeshift shelter for the duration of the storm.
The end of the storm led to a surprisingly chilly evening, where many pilgrims slept, some stayed up in adoration and prayer, and others went to the outlying areas to play their guitars and instruments, sing, and dance together.
Despite all of this activity, the main event of WYD was, and continues to be, the moments where young people and the Pope interact. Throughout the week this has been the case, and this dynamic of interaction is the very soul of WYD. In the end, despite the exotic locations to which WYD draws the young people of the church, despite the jubilant atmosphere, shared songs, and new friendships that it sparks, the reason for WYD is for the young people of the world to meet, and pray, with the Pope. In doing this the draw is not a meeting with the Pope, as one would go to a concert with a rock star, but an encounter with the Pope as the representative of Christ on earth.
This fact, for it is this reason alone that drives WYD and that enables it to keep growing with ever increasing numbers of new young Catholics, tells us something about young people in the world today. It also tells us something about the shape of the world tomorrow, given the aspirations and goals of the vast majority of those young pilgrims who come to WYD.
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