24 August 2011

Memories and images of WYD 2011

I have now been to two World Youth Days, the first in 2008 in Sydney, Australia and the second in 2011 in Madrid, Spain. Both have been memorable experiences in their own rights. Because I have previously blogged about the WYD 2008 – to which I accompanied nine students and two other chaperones – I will now offer a few memories and reflections about the WYD 2011 – to which I accompanied Bishop Paprocki.

Certainly the primary differences in the experiences of World Youth Day stems from the nature of the two pilgrims; it is a much different experience accompanying the youth than accompanying the Bishop, but each are good.

Bishop Paprocki went to the World Youth Day with 60-some other Bishops from the United States, several of whose priest-secretaries also accompanied them. Travelling with the Bishops gave me the opportunity to meet many Bishops whom I not otherwise have the privilege of meeting and it also allowed me to meet other priest secretaries to the Bishop. There is a natural fraternity among priests and it struck me that there is likewise a strong natural fraternity among priest secretaries.

We stayed in a hotel a few miles from the main events; walking to the main venues generally took about 30 minutes, but we always rode a bus to them for purposes of security. Just one block from the hotel was the United States Embassy; this may have simply been coincidental, but it might also have been planned; I’m not certain and never thought to ask.

Two World Youth Day volunteers, both Spaniards, accompanied the two busses of Bishops wherever we went and helped to coordinate the logistics of our travels and also provided helpful advice and guidance in planning side visits to various churches and enjoyable sites in Madrid.

The Bishop and I arrived at the hotel just after Noon on Tuesday and took a little rest before hopping on the bus to concelebrate the Opening Mass at Cibeles Square.

We entered first into what seemed to be a basement level to Cibeles Palace; the Bishops were taken to a large lobby area with albs, stoles and chasubles and the priests were sent outside. Afterwards I learned the priest secretaries were allowed to stay with their Bishops, but for some reason I was sent outside to the section for the “normal” priests.

Apparently I don’t look intimidating enough when I ask questions and point out that other priest secretaries remained with their Bishop; this became a routine difficulty for me throughout the World Youth Day. I’m not quite sure what to do about it except to suggest to the organizers in Rio that the area volunteers be better instructed about priest secretaries.

The priests were situated in such a way that from our chairs we could see nothing of the Mass, which made it a curious and straining thought to concelebrate such a Mass.

On Thursday afternoon we joined the Bishops and gathered again at Cibeles Square for to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the World Youth Day. The Bishops were placed in a section in front and slightly to the right in front of the main stage and the priest secretaries were placed in a similar position, but to the left of the main stage; this afforded an excellent view.

Friday afternoon we gathered in the church of San Jeronimo el Real just behind the Prado Museum with the four groups of pilgrims from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. Bishop Paprocki celebrated Mass for the pilgrims and Fathers Brian Alford, Chris Brey and Nnamdi Moneme, O.M.V. concelebrated. After the Mass the Bishop answered questions from the pilgrims before dismissing them for the Via Crucis, which I attended with the pilgrims from St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Effingham.

By far, the most impressive and memorable moment of the World Youth Day was Saturday’s Prayer Vigil with the Holy Father at the Cuatro Vientos Air Base. We arrived to the field several hours early and took our places on the main stage, where the Holy Father would be seated. Naturally, the priest secretaries were seated towards the back of the stage. I took a seat with several other priest secretaries from the United States in the second to last row of chairs at a spot where I would have a good profile view of the Pope.

As we waited for the arrival of the Holy Father, I noticed clouds gathering in the west and I became a little concerned. Umbrellas were provided for the Bishops and priests at the events in Cibeles Square, but, for some reason were not present at the air field. We pulled our Blackberries – which I abhor – and checked the forecast, which said it would be cloudy but there was a 0% (zero) chance of rain. With minds at ease, we continued our wait.

The edge of the stage was maybe 20 feet behind us as I began to watch the massive crowed of pilgrims I noticed a number of volunteers were forming a line along the drive behind us. Then I noticed several groups of policemen along the same drive. Then I noticed a cameraman with a security guard, who wore a bullet-proof vest; he meant business. It occurred to me then that the Pope would be arriving just behind us.

We still had a good hour or so before the Pope would arrive so I took it upon myself to investigate the rest of the stage. There was a ramp off of the drive behind us leading up to the stage, but there seemed to be no other way to the platform itself.

The World Youth Day Cross and Icon that travel the world prior to each WYD arrived behind us on the ground level with the volunteers who would carry it to the Pope and hand it off to the next group of youth from the next WYD’s host city.

It was then that I became certain, and I suggested to my companions that we took our places at the very edge of the stage to get excellent pictures of the Holy Father’s arrival.  At one point one of the secretaries - who knew where his Bishop was seated (individual Bishops tend to get lost in a sea of identical chasubles and mitres) went to bring him to the stage; he was kind to bring Bishop Paprocki, too.

Then Monsignor Marini and his entourage arrived to await the Holy Father's arrival and I knew I was in the right spot.

Sure enough, shortly after we did so the Crown Prince arrived and, shortly after him the Holy Father himself.

Despite the forecast, the clouds darkened, the winds picked up, the lightening flashed and rain poured from the heavens, drenching Pontiff, Bishops, priests and pilgrims alike. As Father Dan Flens remarked, it certainly proved that the rain in Spain does indeed fall mainly on the plain.

It was this downpour and these winds that made the night so touching.

As volunteers scattered to find hats and umbrellas to distribute to whomever they could, a few of the Bishops, concerned for their cassocks – which are not cheap – ran for the cover of a nearby security tent. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI, with the assistance of Msgr. Guido Marini remained in the wind and the rain.

He gave his blessing to the Deacon who proclaimed a passage of Saint John’s Gospel in Spanish. At one point, the youth erupted in spontaneous applause and great cheers of gladness, crying out “Be-e-ne-de-to!” and “Esta es el juventud del Papa!” I turned to the secretary next to me, who understood spoken Spanish better than me, and asked what the deacon said: “Remain in my love” (John 15:9).

Through their enthusiasm, the youth of the world taught us how to weather every one of life’s storms: remain in the love of Jesus Christ. As some Bishops fled for safety, the youth remained with their Papa, gathered in the love of Jesus Christ. Their shouts of glad confidence in the love of Christ lifted my heart, brought tears to my eyes and moved me profoundly. It was a moment I shall never forget.

As his assistants did their best to keep the Pope dry, Pope Benedict XVI smiled more widely and longer than he has smiled throughout his entire papacy; clearly, he, too, was moved deeply by the faith and trust of the youth who had gathered to be strengthened in the faith by the Successor of Peter.

After some time, Pope Benedict XVI spoke a few words and then went backstage for what seemed a long time. Meanwhile, firefighters checked the safety of the scaffolding behind him and a large monstrance emerged from the stage in front of the altar.

I can’t remember quite clearly when the rain stopped, but I think it stopped while the Pope was backstage. Because Spain has almost no humidity, our cassocks were dry again within twenty minutes; the continued winds certainly helped. The rain cooled the temperature quite a bit, which was a certainly a blessing for the pilgrims who had been in the hot sun all day.

The Pope returned in cope and mitre and lead some 1.5 million youth, with their Bishops and priests, in silent adoration of the Eucharistic Lord.

This, too, was a profound moment of grace. To be in the presence of the Lord with so many of his people was certainly a foretaste of heavenly glory. And to be silent with them – absolutely silent – in the humble praise of God is a grace beyond words.

The faith of the youth is strong. This prayer vigil confirmed the truth of the words Pope Benedict spoke during his first homily as Pope: “The Church is alive…the Church is young!”

After a few hours of sleep, the Bishops returned to the air base for the Closing Mass of the World Youth Day. This time, the Bishops were on the platform joined with a great many more Bishops than were present Saturday night. The priests were placed on the ground level immediately in front and to the left of the stage. This time our location was good.

Their Majesties the King and Queen arrived and shortly afterwards Pope Benedict XVI arrived and rode through the massive gathering of pilgrims prior to the celebration.

A time of silence was again observed by the more 1.5 million pilgrims as they prepared for the Mass. The announcement that the next World Youth Day will take place in Rio de Janiero was, of course, no surprise since the mayor of Rio foolishly announced some days ago.

With the memories of this WYD still fresh in my mind I pray I will be able to attend the World Youth Day 2013.

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