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World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid: A Truly Spiritual Experience!

Fr. Salvador G. Agualada Jr., CMF - Fri, Sep 9th 2011

In a clear and loud voice that reverberated all throughout Madrid, the Spanish city that became for a week the youth capital of the world by being the site of the World Youth Day (WYD) 2011, the youth numbering around 1.5 million and coming from all corners of the globe asserted its unmistakable but perhaps long-forgotten Christian identity: “Esta es la juventud del Papa!” This is the youth of the Pope! – the Pope who merely stands as Christ’s Vicar on earth.


These are the same youth (or majority of them) who are often criticized, if not written off, by some conservative sectors of the Church for not knowing anything but mostly worldly pleasures, gravitated habitually to places that offer them seemingly endless gratification to their unbridled passions and supply them immediate joys even if these are just the passing ones, unmindful of the demands of the Church for a more serious, committed Christian life, a life of self-forgetfulness and loving service to God and to their fellowmen.

Yet, the Vigil with Pope Benedict XVI on August 20, 2011 and the Holy Eucharist in the morning of the following day in Cuatro Vientos, in a vast airfield that instantly metamorphosed into a joyous gathering of almost every flag, every nationality, every language and every color under the sun and a great, happy assembly of young people personally called and seriously challenged to be “firmes en la fe,” made even some Church skeptics think again whether such label essentially and honestly describes the Christian youth of today. For whether when the sun was high up in the azure sky sending blistering rays upon all the hapless pilgrims of the World Youth Day (the temperature was 42, we were told), or when the whole area was being a bit ravaged by a nocturnal tempest (with a wind that was blowing from almost every direction) soaking wet our personal belongings and sleeping bags and making some of us shiver in the unwelcome touch of the evening rain, I never saw in the face of everyone I looked at a regret for having gone to the WYD or at least to the Vigil. 

Everyone stayed where they pitched their sleeping bags, covering themselves with umbrellas, blankets, tarpaulin, or anything readily available. And all these times, people were shouting from everywhere: “Benedicto!” and “Esta es la juventud del Papa!” This remarkable display of affection towards the Holy Father, of nobody moving out to scamper for a shelter (aside from the one they sparingly had) from a torrential rain, made the Pope utter through his spokesperson after the Vigil what perhaps were the most endearing words addressed to the participants during the entire WYD celebration: “I am so very proud of you!” 

For me, the most stirring and truly spiritual moment during the whole WYD experience was when the Blessed Sacrament was brought out for adoration during the Vigil. A total silence suddenly fell upon the entire place, mantling the huge airfield. It was a profoundly reverential silence, a kind of silence that deafened because it pierced not just through the ears but also through the soul, making everyone unable not to hear what it wanted to say. We were shouting every time the Pope appeared and spoke. But in that moment when Jesus Christ, sheltered inside a gold, gigantic monstrance, appeared before us (seen much better through the big screens), everyone fell into prayer, into total silence. I was so amazed and speechless, and the sight and the silence of the place were so moving.

I never thought that the youth of today could still put themselves into complete stillness and silence. Then I realized why we were there: it was not so much to see the Pope, but to have a deep encounter and profound experience with the Risen Christ, this time in the company of all the other youth coming from every nation on earth with a Catholic population; to listen to each other, to learn from one another about the individual stories and experiences of how the Lord continues to journey with us through the anguish and pains of life, to walk with each other under the fatherly guidance of someone who has been called to strengthen the brothers and sisters in the faith – the Pope. After all, as Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly said, something that became almost like a refrain (and a central theme) in the WYD homilies and catecheses: to be a Christian is a task that can never be fulfilled alone, by one’s self; it is a task that can only be lived and carried out in community. For the God who has called us to live in community cannot grant us the grace of faith, fidelity and perseverance outside the community.

When I woke up at 7 o’clock in the morning when the sun was almost breaking, my Filipino companion told me that it again rained around 4 AM. But I never noticed it except that the outer layer of my sleeping bag was drenched. I am sure very few ever did. To be honest, I had one of the deepest and soundest and most wonderful sleep of my life, and to think that we slept in one of the most uncomfortable places to lie down and sleep, on a ground that turned a bit muddy because of the rain, in an airfield colonized and inhabited by inhospitable ants, under the canopy of a sinister sky that portended more rains than stars. But it was truly more restful than any of my sleep in my two weeks of sojourn in Spain. Was it because of the Holy Father’s nocturnal blessing during the Vigil? After all, how many times in our entire lifetimes do we ever get to be blessed by the Pope before we go to sleep? In my case, I can count of two occasions: the historic WYD 1995 in Manila that saw the biggest gathering of young people with the Supreme Pontiff in the entire history of the Church (with more than 4 million participants), and the very memorable, just recently-concluded WYD 2011 in Madrid last month. When I go back to the Philippines, and it is going to be very soon, I can tell my friends: “I was there!”

Fr. Salvador G. Agualada Jr., CMF
The author studied in Rome, Italy for the last two years, taking up Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He belongs to the Philippine Province of the Claretian Congregation.

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