Photographer's Notebook: World Youth Day 2011

When the dust settles — and, considering the setting for the closing events with Pope Benedict XVI, you might say that literally — one lasting impression of August in Spain may be that the city of Madrid left a heavy footprint on the latest World Youth Day.

It wasn't as if the Catholic youths from around the world just happened to be in Madrid and the Church utilized some large venues there for a series of gatherings. In terms of visual impact and setting the stage, Madrid played a very large part in the script by weaving its big architecture, avenues, religious art and parks and gardens into the story.

For picture taking, it was great fun to line up the visual elements of Plaza de Cibeles, the Royal Palace, the Basilica in Toledo or the lovely Buen Retiro Park (clearly a hit with every youth who ventured there) into shots of World Youth Day pilgrims. Madrid didn't disappoint in that respect.

While there were many treasures large and small to this World Youth Day in Madrid, there were downsides too. The city location made for a somewhat disjointed experience — running around a crowded Metro system and across plazas and avenues and trying to catch a glimpse of the pope.

Until the very end, there were no spaces fully large and open enough to create those communal experiences needed for virtually all the pilgrims to feel unity with each other and with the pontiff.

Also visitors will not forget the hard Spanish summer heat and searing sunlight. They proved a formidable challenge that threatened body and soul, bringing many young pilgrims to the point of collapse and dehydration. Properly respected and taken in small doses, the sun was manageable, but it put a dent into amount of time and energy one could invest in the activities.

After the sun gave way, the early evenings around the city were a delight. What is 9 p.m. there looks and feels like 7 p.m. back home, maybe helping explain Madrid's late-night style. After hours, the pilgrims entered Part Two of their day, taking to the plazas and streets to convene informally, to sample the local food and sweets and to sing songs.

And whereas we usually point to newspaper headlines about how impressed the locals were with the good behavior of our World Youth Day pilgrims, I don't think we will find those reactions here. Across the board, the kids were angels from what I observed, and the Spanish were mostly gracious, easy hosts. But it was a trying week for all, and there was a little bit of weariness in the air — in part because of the overly-publicized protesting going on and the stress of a global financial crisis impacting Europe.

My first trip to Europe included a stopover in Madrid on the way to cover World Youth Day 1997 in Paris. There was a front-page newspaper story that I saved noting the good times under way in Spain as a result of the economic boom emerging there. The photo showed a disco scene. Now, the Page One photos show unemployed youths, and headlines there declare the party is over. And so is another World Youth Day, of which one could simply say: We survived Madrid.

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.

Photos by Tom Tracey

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Spanish pilgrims arrive for the opening World Youth Day Mass on Aug. 16 in Madrid.
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Pilgrims and clergy take a respite from the heat and crowds at Madrid’s Retiro Park on Aug. 17.
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Pilgrims take part in English-language catechesis, including Mass and veneration of relics.
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Young Catholics await Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival at the Aug. 20 vigil at Quatro Vientos airbase.
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Franciscans and other religious pray during the opening Mass on Aug. 16.
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Pilgrims from all over the world filled Madrid’s streets for the opening Mass for the Aug. 16-21 World Youth Day.
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Pilgrims take part in catechesis at the Church of St. Teresa and St. Joseph in Madrid.
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Youths await Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival at the welcoming ceremony Aug. 18 in Madrid.