By Breanna Tumelty
On August 16-21, I gathered with members of the Cabrinian community in Spain for World Youth Day (WYD), an event launched by Blessed John Paul II in 1985 that occurs every two to three years in various cities throughout the world. On this WYD, 1.5 million young people traveled to Madrid for the purpose of rooting their lives more deeply in Christ and building futures based on His call. Despite the fact that I do not like crowds, it was transformational to be in the midst of so many people speaking so many languages, yet united in one faith.
My WYD experience began with Mass on Tuesday evening, celebrated by the Archbishop of Madrid, who called the youth “heroes of this millennium.” The special opening liturgy was dedicated to Blessed John Paul II, whose relic was brought from Krakow and venerated at the end of the Mass. On Wednesday through Friday morning, our Cabrini group split up by language and attended catechesis sessions with bishops from around the world.
The English sessions included keynote talks by Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS Ministries, and Jason and Crystalina Evert, international chastity speakers among a number of others. We also had opportunities to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Mass each day.
On Wednesday evening, our group joined EWTN’s Father Mark and Doug Barry for a live television broadcast of the popular show, “Life on the Rock.” We also attended Catholic Underground, hosted by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, for an unforgettable Holy Hour and time of worship. The highlight was the final catechesis session with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who spoke engagingly about mission and evangelization.
The most memorable part of WYD was witnessing on Friday evening the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), a time of solemn remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. Crowds gathered in great anticipation to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father.
The focus was on the suffering that young people endure around the world, which parallels the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Fifteen elaborate stations lined the main street plaza, featuring life-size wooden sculptures placed in canopies with red and white brackets—the colors of WYD—and included a text from the Gospel.
The sculptures we observed are masterpieces of Spanish religious art, some of which date back centuries. Each station contained a meditation on people who suffer for various reasons (racial discrimination, religious persecution, those struggling with drug or alcohol addictions, the unemployed, as well as people with disabilities and serious health issues).
The suffering of Christ was portrayed in a profoundly unique way as it incorporated the trials and experiences of the universal Church. Victims of drug addiction, natural disasters, sexual abuse, and marginalization were invited to unite their suffering with Christ’s by carrying a wooden cross to each station. The Way of the Cross was a relay of suffering, in which the baton of burden was passed on in solidarity from one group of victims to the next after a prayer was read at each station.
All of the cross-carriers were united in both their suffering and hope at the prospect of ultimate salvation and joy. In his reflection following the final station, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the crowds with a remark that touched me profoundly:
“You are open to the idea of sharing your lives with others, so be sure not to pass by on the other side of the road in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give of your very best: your capacity for love and compassion.”
It was a great honor and blessing to be in the presence of Our Holy Father, especially when he first arrived to electrifying shouts of “We are the youth of the Pope!” and “Viva el Papa!” The highpoint of WYD occurred Saturday night at Cuatro Vientos airbase when Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the youth of the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which deepened my identity as a Catholic.
That evening, during a surprising downpour that made us feel our human weakness in the face of nature, Pope Benedict XVI spoke words I will never forget: “Thank you for your joy and resistance. Your strength is stronger than the rain.”
One powerful aspect of WYD that I continue to reflect on is the Hearts on Fire presentation, given by a team of young Jesuits. I discovered that my personal search for truth, through religion and philosophy, dovetails with the Jesuit intellectual tradition, which emphasizes a spirit of open inquiry and places high value on the integration of faith and reason.
I was impressed with how the presentation combined, in such a short time, practical ways of connecting prayer and daily life with key insights from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuit seminarians shared the importance of making a morning offering, living the Eucharist throughout the day, and ending the day with a review.
They also offered guidance on discernment and recommended ways to respond to experiences of spiritual consolation and desolation. Everyone brought home at least one souvenir; for me, it was the Daily Examen, a simple and meaningful prayer of awareness that Ignatius taught in his Spiritual Exercises.
I left Madrid with a much deeper understanding of the meaning of pilgrimage. Experiencing Catholicism on a universal level has shown me that I am part of something larger than myself. World Youth Day 2011 was a great success for Spain and a beautiful example that the Catholic Church is not just alive, but thriving with energy, passion, and love.