Monday, August 29, 2011

On Pilgrimage, Part Two

'God alone suffices.' So I ended my previous post, as we got on the bus for the short trip from Avila to Madrid.
God alone suffices... but it was anything but 'God alone' for the next week! Me and 1.5 million of my closest friends rattling around in the beautiful city of Madrid, in temperatures topping out in the upper 30s (Celsius - that's around 100 in Fahrenheit), each day packed with catechesis, liturgies, talks, celebrations, and people, people, people.
It is impossible to convey WYD in words - I know that many of my blog readers have been at one some time or another, so I don't necessarily need to. The enthusiasm, energy, sheer volume of the young crowds, the intensity of moving around in such a vast throng of people, the endless variety of nations, and then the intimate little personal encounters with this one or that one in the crowd as you wait in line or press together on a subway car or against a railing waiting for Mass to start.
At times there can be a bit of skepticism, even cynicism about WYD - I've run across some pretty negative stuff on the Internet since returning, which I won't bother linking to. A sense can be had that this is just a party for well off young Catholics who don't necessarily believe any of this nonsense, but just want to cut loose in Europe for a few days.
Well, it may be that for some - who knows? I didn't interview 1.5 million people! But that wasn't my general impression. What was my general impression? Three things summarize it:
1) Teaching - The volume, and sheer quality of the teaching was impressive. Our group attended a catechetical session with by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra, and two with Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Christopher West was there giving a powerful presentation of the Theology of the Body, and the Knights of Columbus sponsored a series of panel discussions at the English-language Love and Life center, covering topics like religious freedom, evangelization of culture, the theology of the body, social media, prayer, entertainment. The quality of the speakers was world class, and the depth of the teaching being given was thoroughly adult. Perhaps this stood out for me because of my own avocation as a teacher, but it really was terrific stuff. And the young people seemed receptive, listening, receptive. The Word of God was preached - that's the main thing. Who receives it and who doesn't is a mystery hidden in the hearts of those present.
2) Reconciliation - I took two stints of three-hours each in the confessional. Obviously I won't discuss anything said there, but I can testify to those who may question the fruits of WYD that, at least for the couple of dozen people I encountered in the sacrament, God was definitely on the move. Graces being received, deep struggles and secret places of the heart being poured out, serious calls to repent, to change, to recommit to Christ--that was what I encountered. And it was beautiful.
3) Silence - 1.5 million people gathered for the Vigil at Cuatro Vientos. I will pass over the blazing heat, shortness of water, and violent storm in the evening. My lasting memory, though, is two moments of total silence in the crowd. When the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, this vast throng of very enthusiastic, very noisy young people fell absolutely quiet. It was unearthly, really. A moment, a minute, two minutes - how long was it? But everyone was still. The same thing happened during the Mass the next morning, after the homily. By then the crowd was probably over 2 million (but what's another 500 000 among friends?) - and again, utter silence, utter calm, utter quiet.
What's it all about? What's it all for? What comes of it? That's for God to know, and to say. But this little pilgrim touched something very deep and beautiful in Spain. Truth and grace and silence moving through what was, yes, a big Catholic party (and there ain't no party like a Catholic party...).
But God was there at the party, and yes, that alone suffices. 

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