||Diocese of Madison pilgrim Rory Cotter cheers with the crowd as they await the pope’s arrival at Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid on August 18. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner) For more pictures, check out the Madison Catholic Herald’s Photo Site.
MADRID -- A pilgrimage, in its most basic sense, is a journey. But it is far more than that — often undertaken as a form of penance or as a way to spiritually strengthen oneself, a pilgrimage is a test of one’s faith, endurance, and dedication to God.
While some might have seen World Youth Day (WYD), from a distance, as a vacation, as a gathering of a million or so young people in honor of the pope and the Church, its true meaning went far deeper. For those who endured the week of nights sleeping on hard floors, hours waiting in long queues for access to food, water, and toilets, days of blistering heat and sun, and travel through crowded streets, buses, and metros, this was a pilgrimage.
To what? To a greater understanding of the Catholic faith. To a love of neighbor. To a deeper sense of faith and a deeper love of the Church.
As the theme of this year’s World Youth Day said, the pilgrims were becoming “Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.”
||Photos, video and a slide show on the Madison Diocesan pilgrims journey to World Youth Day in Spain can also be viewed. Click on the links above.
Rooted in the faith
The diocesan pilgrimages, both for those traveling to Lourdes and Days in the Diocese in Zaragoza as well as for those on the Camino de Santiago, offered pilgrims an opportunity to learn more about the Church and its history in this part of the world.
Spain’s population is approximately 92.2 percent Catholic, according to Vatican statistics, but has a turbulent and sometimes anti-Catholic history. However, it also has a number of notable saints that called the country home, such as St. Isidore the Farmer and his wife, St. Maria of the Head; St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits; St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei; St. Theresa of Avila; St. Rose of Lima; and St. John of the Cross. The organizers of World Youth Day 2011 also took on as patron saint of the event Blessed Pope John Paul II, who started the World Youth Day tradition in 1985 and celebrated the international event in 1989 in Santiago de Compostela.
For some pilgrims, this was the first time at an international World Youth Day; for a few, this was even their first time outside of the United States.
“I’ve got more of an understanding of the universal Catholic Church and how we’re all united, coming from so many different parts of the world,” said diocesan pilgrim Jordan Maternoski. “I’ve never been anywhere in the world, so that’s the biggest thing I’ll take away.”
For others, this may have been the second or third (or more) World Youth Day they had attended.
“This was my third World Youth Day,” said Fr. John Putzer, parochial vicar at Sacred Hearts Parish in Sun Prairie and one of the five diocesan priests to attend WYD with the pilgrims. “I had been to Cologne in 2005 and Australia in 2008. In those previous experiences, it encouraged me to see young people so excited about their faith and to be with the pope.
“This time in Madrid it was my first time to be at World Youth Day as a priest, to walk with other young pilgrims and our young seminarians,” he said. “I was just blown away by the hearts of the people in our group that were transformed. We had people from 18 to 24 and the older ones — many of them from St. Paul’s University Catholic Center — were great witnesses to the younger people. It was a great experience to see young adults who live their faith in a radical way, to see the joy and excitement on everyone’s faces.”
Built up in Christ
For this World Youth Day, organizers hoped to bring the focus of the event strongly onto catechesis and the sacraments.
Following the Opening Mass in the evening on August 16, celebrated by Madrid Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela in the Plaza de Cibeles, each day offered catechesis sessions for pilgrims to learn more about their faith. The Diocese of Madison pilgrims attended these catechesis sessions at the Love and Life Center, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and Sisters of Life for English-speaking pilgrims, but other sessions were also offered throughout the city.
From August 17 to 19, 250 bishop-catechists led catechetical sessions in various languages to crowds of young people that could range from a few hundred to, at the Love and Life Center, 12,000 pilgrims. These sessions were centered on the theme of World Youth Day and followed a pattern. The first day focused on “Firm in the Faith,” inviting young people to more closely examine “the gift of faith”; the second day invited participants “to build a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”; and the third day offered a reminder “that every baptized person is called to mission,” especially among their peers.
In addition to attending catechesis sessions, pilgrims were able to attend Mass, celebrated in hundreds of locations throughout the city, and find Eucharistic Adoration available at many churches and chapels, some at all hours of the day. A swath of the vast Parque del Buen Retiro held 200 confessionals for pilgrims to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A well-attended Vocations Fair offered pilgrims information for discernment.
The people of Spain, as well, offered their encouragement through flags hung on balconies, signs in windows, and friendly faces and offers of directions and help. Throughout the week, the pilgrims were also bolstered by the prayers of dozens of cloistered religious communities throughout the country.
But beyond the experiences that World Youth Day’s organizers could control, there were also the practical experiences that had an impact on the pilgrims.
There are always small things that go wrong at events as large as this, where estimates put the total number of pilgrims at two million.
Every day of the week of World Youth Day provided temperatures that soared into triple digits with little other than blue skies. Especially when packed into the streets surrounding the Plaza de Cibeles in downtown Madrid, and even at the larger venue of Cuatro Vientos Aerodrome, space was tight and water and food were difficult to obtain. But when pilgrims fainted or were dehydrated, other pilgrims and volunteers quickly came to their rescue, offering little snacks they had saved, bottles of water, umbrellas for shade, and support.
In the streets of Madrid, locals were happy to help point the way to the desired location. Strangers on the metro asked where you were from and how large your groups were. One woman, in a conversation before the Via Crucis event, even generously offered to cook a group of pilgrims a meal and use her shower at her apartment.
And then, the last day: during the vigil at Cuatro Vientos, after a day of 115-degree temperatures and unrelenting sun, a torrential storm broke over the million pilgrims assembled, interrupting the pope’s homily and drenching the grounds. Despite this, pilgrims sang, chanting “Benedicto!” and “Esta es la juventud del papa!” (“This is the pope’s youth”), waiting out the storm with prayer and goodwill.
“Thank you for your joy and resistance. Your strength is bigger than the rain,” Pope Benedict said as the rain stopped falling and the winds died. “The Lord sends you lots of blessings with the rain.”
And though the rain had cooled the temperatures considerably, and the ground was muddy, the youth knelt as the Blessed Sacrament was displayed in the monstrance during Adoration, and the majority stayed the night on the cold, wet ground.
Lessons in the pilgrimage
There was a lesson in these sacrifices:
“You find out that you can be happy without being comfortable, and you find out that joy comes from a source outside of yourself and outside of the comfort that comes through this earth,” said Fr. Eric Nielsen, pastor of St. Paul’s University Parish in Madison.
“I think the favorite thing I’m taking out of this is a great experience in how dedicated everyone is to the Church as a whole: from different countries, from all over,” said diocesan pilgrim Valerie Plaus. “We may not be able to understand what’s going on all the time, but we know the Mass and we all are here because of that, and we all love the pope, so we’re here because of that. I love the feeling of unity you get because of that, having so many people participating in one thing.
“I was really lucky, in that I experienced a thing like this in 2002 (in Toronto), where we got rained on from 6 to 9,” Plaus said. “It’s always really amazing watching people come out of that. We’re wet, we’re annoyed, our stuff’s getting wet, but we’re still staying, we’re still here, this is why we’re here. It’s always really fortifying to see that, to be a part of that, and remember you can work your way through whatever.”
“Like tonight, with Christ you can face the trials of life,” the pope said before he left for the night August 20. “Do not forget.”