Picture the scene: it is a hot sunny day in Germany and the banks of the Rhine are lined with thousands of young people who have been there for several hours. They are wading into the water, splashing each other, waving flags and generally making a lot of excited noise.
A chant begins to be heard, moving down the river growing gradually louder and louder. Hundreds of voices are shouting: “Benedetto! Benedetto!”
A procession of boats approaches, led by a large cruiser, which is met by rapturous applause and cheering. On the deck of the cruiser stands a tiny figure in white who is waving to the crowds. He lets them cheer and shout for a few minutes, then gently raises his hand. Instantly everyone is quiet. This is Pope Benedict XVI, being welcomed into Cologne for the 20th World Youth Day, 2005.
The first World Youth Day (WYD), the brainchild of John Paul II, took place in Rome, and since then it has occurred every few years in places as varied as Argentina, France and Toronto. Since its first celebration in 1984, it has evolved into a vibrant week-long pilgrimage where young Catholics from all over the world come together to join with the pope to pray, celebrate and reflect.
Like too many young Catholics, I had never really known much about WYD and had never seriously considered going. That is, until those unforgettable days in April when John Paul II died with young people praying outside his window, and the whole world paused for a moment to look. For my generation of Catholics, John Paul II was the only pope we had ever known he was our Holy Father and we were the JP2 generation. Then of course came the election and once we had gotten over the excitement of the white smoke and had cleared the champagne corks away, it began to sink in: the cardinals had elected a German pope just in time for the first ever WYD in Germany. With such an inducement, and with the last words of JP2 still ringing in our ears, my youth group at church decided that we just had to go to Cologne and show the new pope that the youth of the Church were right behind him.
It was a rather last-minute decision but around 15 young people from the parish (the Oratory in Oxford) signed up to go and the next thing we knew we were arriving in Dusseldorf, a neighboring town to Cologne, and being welcomed by local parishioners who had volunteered to take us into their homes for the week. I have never met with such hospitality as we did in Germany that summer. The parishioners had been given very little notice but they couldn’t have been more generous and friendly. I and three other girls slept on the floor of a house owned by a lovely German lady who lived with her husband, son and enormous Saint Bernard dog. We were soon initiated into the German delights of wurst, sauerkraut, wonderful pastries and super-efficient showers!
The pope was due to arrive in Cologne on Thursday and for the few days before this we spent time visiting churches, praying, sight-seeing and taking part in huge open-air Masses and services. The theme of the week was “We have to come to worship Him”, a reference to the three Wise Men to whom the Cologne Cathedral is dedicated. The theme was illustrated wonderfully in prayers, songs and of course best of all in the enormous crowds. Everywhere we went, we were with vast crowds of young people from all over the world chanting the pope’s name, singing hymns and saying the Rosary in many different languages. While there I met Poles, Italians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Australians and even Moldovans!
Everyone was proud to be Catholic, witnessing to their faith with joy, excitement and no small share of patriotism, as everyone vied to see which country was the most vocally represented. Every church we went into was packed full. In one beautiful medieval church there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament running 24 hours all week long, organized by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. They were praying for the success of the week and the safety of everyone attending it. Their prayers were certainly effective. Despite the immense crowds, and noise that was often deafening, I never once felt threatened or scared. There was no drunkenness, violence or aggression, even when people had to wait hours for trains because there were simply too many people to get into the station or when the food ran out because many more people had turned up than had been anticipated. The atmosphere was wonderful this was truly a celebration of what it means to be Catholic.
WYD ended with an all-night vigil on the Marienfeld a vast space of farmland outside Cologne. Here, more than a million young pilgrims gathered with their bed rolls and sleeping bags to spend the night in prayer, song and worship. The official vigil was from 8:30-11 p.m. when the pope was there. He led us all in prayers and hymns, and gave a short sermon on the Eucharist. By this stage everyone had been issued a candle and the night was lit up by more than a million twinkling lights. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. After the official vigil ended, many of us stayed up to go to confession and adoration in large marquees on the site. The adoration marquee was so crowded that we could only stay for about 15 minutes before we were asked to leave and make room for others. It was then about 2 a.m. and time to get into sleeping bags and try to sleep under the stars. Amazingly most of us did actually manage to get a few hours rest those fervent prayers for a dry night paid off!
The next morning was the closing Mass of WYD, which was celebrated by the pope. It was quite an experience to be hearing Mass with more than a million young people, many of them standing up still in their sleeping bags, all rather bleary-eyed and dishevelled on a grey, damp morning. The sanctuary was a long way off but there were lots of big screens set up all over the field so we could see and hear what was going on. We heard the pope’s sermon, which was in many different languages: a simple powerful message urging us to love God, be faithful to the Church and especially to reverence the Eucharist and go to Sunday Mass. At the end of the Mass he gave us his blessing, which we knelt to receive, and then he announced the venue for the next WYD, which would be Sydney, to the great excitement of all the Australians there.
On our long trek home we had our very own miracle, proving, if it needed to be proved, that God really was watching over us all and that our guardian angels were working overtime. We had to get from the Marienfeld to Cologne airport for our flight at 7:30 p.m. Coaches were transporting the vast numbers of pilgrims and in the rush our party got split up. Most of us managed to meet up at Cologne airport but two were stranded miles away with no way of getting on to a coach or even a taxi. In a series of frantic phone calls, they said they were trying to walk to the airport but by now time was running very short. When in doubt, turn to the Rosary! We all set to praying very hard in the middle of the airport. We had barely got to the end of the last decade when we got a phone call from our prodigal pilgrims: a lady in a blue car had seen them on the road and was giving them a lift to the airport!
WYD was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. It is impossible to attend one and not to feel your faith strengthened and affirmed. It is easy to feel alone and isolated in the secular western world, which can seem so indifferent to Christ and His Church, but WYD 2005 proved beyond any doubt that the Church and especially the Church in Europe is not dead or dying. It is vibrant and full of life. And now we are all counting down to Sydney WYD 2008 and frantically saving money for flights. I would recommend WYD to every young Catholic as a never-to-be-forgotten experience and a wonderful occasion for grace. As the pope said at his inaugural Mass: “The Church is alive, the Church is young”.
Lucy Nash is now 20 years old and is in her second year studying English literature at Durham University in the north of England. In the holidays she lives at home in Oxford with her family: two brothers and one sister.
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