Report from Madrid

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine November – December 2011

I'm looking back and thinking about it all. I must admit that I went partly because I had read some rather ill-tempered criticisms of the event, so I decided I'd find out about it for myself. I had heard that it was noisy, ill-conceived, possibly immoral, a distortion of real Catholicism.

But World Youth Day was none of these things - except, possibly, at times, the first, and the noises made were cheerful, enthusiastic, and at times very musical. I attended as a freelance journalist, loosely connected with a group organised by our diocesan Director of Vocations and including a number of young men training for the priesthood. I was by turns edified, amused, cheered, inspired and exhausted.

The burning sun, teeming anthills and large, sneering grasshoppers on the scorching airfield at Cuatros Veintos on the outskirts of Madrid were horrible, the thunderstorm frightening but magnificent, the Holy Father simply magnificent, the united silent prayer at the subsequent Blessed Sacrament vigil unforgettable and moving, and the sincerity and enthusiasm of the young people tangible and significant.

Of course World Youth Day isn't just a day - or even a night and a day. It actually isn't even a week. Most of the young people who take part make it a ten-day or two-week event, staying at a local parish, helping with some community project, visiting a well-known shrine or shrines, taking part in catechesis, or doing all of these things. The mood is that of a pilgrimage - at times slightly Chaucerian in its cheerful Catholicism and its journeying.

The thing that everyone noticed in Madrid was the joy. Groups broke out into song on street corners. Crowded railway platforms erupted into "Vive el Papa!" or "Ben-e-dicto!" Guitars were produced and singing groups gathered anywhere and everywhere. You also noticed the prayer. People drew into a quiet group beneath the trees in a park and prayed the Rosary. At one overcrowded station, a group began to pray the Hail Mary in - I think - Portuguese, and other groups joined in, using their own languages, and a calm descended. I didn't see any pushing or anger - not even at the long queues waiting for water at that scorching airfield.

If you look at some TV film of some of the events, you'll see young people talking together, or dozing off, or trying to find shade from the sun, or drinking water, or walking off in search of some necessity. It does happen like that. But overall, what most of us experienced - on a huge scale and in a way that will touch our lives forever - was an atmosphere of prayer, of unity in the Catholic Faith, of a youthful Church focused on the reality of Jesus Christ.

Because Britain's mainstream mass media - BBC, newspapers - focused mainly on the protesters opposed to the Pope visiting Spain, it was hard to explain to people, once I got home, the reality of what World Youth Day was like. For the young pilgrims, the main means of communication are Facebook, twitter, text messaging, and phone conversations. They honestly don't know or care what version the BBC put out.

There were some moments which deserve to be noted as hugely, hugely significant. The night vigil at the airfield following the thunderstorm - and the huge wave of affection that greeted the Holy Father as he calmly stayed with us and refused to budge even while busy monsignori bustled around him with umbrellas and all-too-evident pleas that he should depart. Some beautiful music -1 remember in particular a lovely Ave Verum. The formal dedication, by the Holy Father, of the Church's young people to the Sacred Heart - possibly the most under-reported and most important event of the whole week.

Things to improve? Organisation, of course - too many people couldn't get into the main airfield even though they had tickets. There was chaos and muddle there. And we needed a lot more water, and a lot sooner. For the liturgy, the young pilgrims could have been urged in the months beforehand to learn how to sing the Pater Noster and Creed and Agnus Dei and in Latin. The chant was a standard one, and it is tragic that despite the urgings of the Second Vatican Council this heritage has been sidelined (my guess is that this will in any case change as the Benedict XVI style in the liturgy slowly takes hold).

Behaviour of the young? I saw nothing to shock or horrify, much that was impressive, courteous, kind, cheerful, well-mannered and above all prayerful. Don't focus too much on girls who insist on wearing strappy tops despite being told to cover up, or youngsters shrieking with glee as they run in scorching heat to get drenched by fire hoses. Don't be surprised if young people sing and talk and dance on a summer night in the open air.

I saw young people sitting or kneeling in prayer together. I saw seminarians calmly reading their Office amid great heat and discomfort. I saw young people in huge numbers going to confession - at the great Festival of Forgiveness in the central park where a city of special white confessionals had been erected, but also at dozens of other places, in meeting-places, on long walks, on the airfield, on coaches or buses, anywhere and everywhere that offered the opportunity.

I saw young priests, and nuns and brothers, hundreds and hundreds of them. I saw the Church which John Paul II shepherded into this third millennium and handed over to his successor, Benedict, who is guiding it with a steady and loving hand. At World Youth Day, I saw a Church that Christians down all the previous centuries would know as their own, and love. When I am very old, I will be glad and grateful to look back and know that as a middle-aged journalist, I went to World Youth Day 2011.

Faith Magazine