By Anthony Erlandson - The Priest, 2/1/2012
As Father Drew Curry of my home parish in Fort Wayne, Ind., first said to me last August, I was going to be unpacking the gifts of this pilgrimage for a long while to come.
For about nine months leading up to World Youth Day 2011, the Holy Spirit was hard at work in my life, nudging me little by little, then stronger and stronger, to pursue the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Madrid, Spain, for the international Catholic event for the youth of the world. All that work, along with my prayers and the prayers and help of so many other individuals in my life culminated in my taking part in this amazing experience in mid-August. I had the privilege of celebrating this occasion with Jessica, my girlfriend, 42 other young adults from around Indianapolis, and more than a million young people from all over the world.
So much can be said about the experience, but what was most striking to me was that, for the first time, I truly saw Jesus’ universal Church alive, thriving and jubilant at a time when, as a recent college graduate, society seems so against everything we are supposed to stand for, and the popular media would have us believe that the Church is antiquated, irrelevant and debilitated.
City of Stones and Saints
Even from the first moment we arrived in Madrid, celebrating Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Almudena, patroness of Madrid, it was remarkable to be celebrating Mass with a group from northern California — at once so similar and yet so different. They brought so much passion to the celebration of the Mass in their music, singing, participation and spirit. It was just the first of many wake-up calls that would come during that week.
The early part of the week (Sunday and Monday), we made a couple of day trips outside Madrid, making our way to Ávila and Toledo to the north and south, respectively. Ávila, home of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, is known as the City of Stones and Saints because of the famous wall still encircling the city and the many saints who have come from that town. Toledo, rich in Church and Spanish history, is called the City of Three Cultures — Christians, Jews and Muslims — who lived there alongside one another for several centuries.
Rooted Jesus, Strong in Faith
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we joined with 12,000 other English speakers from around the world for catechesis. At the Palacio de Deportes, a large convention center, we sang praise and worship songs with a band of Franciscan Friars, and listened to Church leaders such as Cardinal George Pell from Australia and Archbishop Timothy Dolan from the United States give catechesis on the theme of “Rooted in Jesus, Strong in the Faith,” followed by Mass.
Each day there were priests available for the sacrament of Reconciliation. Other daily events included Eucharistic adoration, a walking audio-visual art exhibit designed by the Sisters of Life, and other small chapels for silent prayer alone. I was privileged to listen to speakers such as Jason and Crystalina Evert, who have the rare gift of being able to connect with young people on the topic of chastity; Vicki Thorn, founder of Project Rachel and so knowledgeable of both the science and the theology of the body, and Archbishop Dolan, who electrified the entire audience with his boisterous personality and unabashed love of the Church.
On Wednesday evening, over half a million people crammed into the streets of Madrid to welcome the Pope and hold an opening prayer service with him. It was so hot, and having nowhere to go but to sit on the hot pavement didn’t help matters. Luckily, WYD volunteers were walking up and down emergency access paths with giant tanks of water on their backs, spraying the crowd to keep us cool!
Pope Benedict finally arrived, and he even drove the Popemobile through the middle of the crowd. I could only catch a glimpse of the top of the Popemobile, but there were giant screens up along the street so we could see projected images of the Holy Father. He offered a message of hope and gratitude to all who had made the journey to be with him and with the Church. Although he spoke only in Spanish, even those who could not understand him were unable to resist joining in with the cheers and celebratory atmosphere. This was another of those “Moments of Wonder and Awe” that I experienced all week. To see so many people my age, enthusiastic and showing their love of Jesus and His Church, was something I had never seen before in my life.
On that Wednesday also, we witnessed in Madrid the protests against the Pope and the Church. It was a solemn reminder that taking our faith back home with us would not always be easy. The life that Jesus calls us to live is not without challenges and struggles. While, for the most part, the protests were not violent, there were some instances of aggression toward pilgrims. Thankfully, the city of Madrid worked very hard to intervene in these situations for the protection of all the pilgrims.
On Friday, we made our last big pilgrimage, walking about seven miles outside of the city to a large airport field called Cuatro Vientos. Alongside almost 2 million other pilgrims, we laid out sleeping bags in what little space was available and waited for Pope Benedict. After several hours, he finally arrived to hold an evening vigil prayer service with us. Halfway through the prayer service, it began to storm. It was a powerful, windy thunderstorm with plenty of lighting. I found myself, along with three others in our group, huddled under a cardboard box, a sleeping bag, and a large flag, not too successfully trying to keep dry. We prayed a rosary together until the rain suddenly stopped. While I could not hear what was being said on the main stage, I later learned from one of the priests present that the rain stopped at the moment that Pope Benedict consecrated the world’s youth to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
We slept — or tried to sleep — through the night on the ground and in the cold, waiting for morning when we would celebrate Mass with the Holy Father. That Mass was truly representative of the universal Catholic Church. Throughout the Mass, at different points, we heard Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Chinese, as well as other languages. The Pope challenged us to carry our love of Jesus with us as we returned to our homes. He told us to continue to work for the good of the Church and to be strong in our faith.
The Pope’s message seems best summarized in my mind by what a Spanish woman said to me on the street one day. Jessica and I were walking through the Parque de Buen Retiro when the woman stopped us and said, “You are the hope of the Church.” Pope Benedict reminded us at Cuatro Vientos of what Blessed John Paul II had said: we are not only the future of the Church, but the present of the Church as well.
As for right now, however, it’s hard not to look ahead to the future. World Youth Day 2013 in Rio De Janeiro is only a year and a half away! TP
MR. ERLANDSON is a graduate of Butler University and is currently spending a year in China studying Mandarin Chinese at Zhejiang Shifan University.
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