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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 3
Michaelmas 2011

World Youth Day 2011 Report
I Saw a New Springtime This Summer

by Joanna Bogle

It was probably inevitable that the British press and BBC got it wrong when trying to report on World Youth Day 2011. They just can’t understand the real news story. Here were two million — yes, you read that correctly — young people, from all over the world, praying together in peace and harmony, with the pope, in what is widely supposed to be a Europe where Christianity has been marginalized.

The young people had arrived from all points of the compass, and had gathered in Madrid, Spain’s capital city simmering in summer sunshine. For a week they met, sang, prayed, attended Mass and received Holy Communion together, confessed their sins in a great series of confessionals established in a city park for just that purpose, studied, attended talks and lectures, picnicked, put on spontaneous displays of dancing and street theater, and showered the city with goodwill and friendship and merriment and laughter.

During the week, the initial group totalling about a million pilgrims greeted new arrivals who poured in day after day. The final tally on Madrid’s massive Cuatro Vientos airfield was two million souls, with more gathered outside the perimeter and unable to get in.

We walked there in huge long streaming columns pouring out from the center of Madrid — national flags flying, feet tramping along the dusty paths as we crossed through the suburbs and outlying areas, snatches of song and recitation of the Rosary filling the air. As we passed blocks of flats, people poured out glorious bucketfuls of water over our hot, dusty, thirsty bodies to cries of grateful thanks and shouts of “More! More!”

At the airfield the scorching sun was terrifying, matched as it was by a shortage of water (rectified as the afternoon wore on, but horrible in the first few hours), by teeming anthills and vast quantities of grasshoppers, by thistles and thorns and dust. Many of us were praying for rain. I remembered how, in England last year, rain fell gently and steadily at Cofton Park as we awaited the Holy Father’s arrival. As he came, the rain ceased, the sun shone out and a great rainbow arched across the sky. Now, we needed the reverse: for the sun to leave us and the rain to pour down. Our hope for relief was not in vain. The clouds gathered, and — oh, joy, oh, bliss! — rain began to patter down, just as the Holy Father took to the stage.

It got more dramatic: a splendid thunderstorm began, with lightning zig-zagging down the sky, and great electric crackling noises filling the air. Just briefly, it was frightening. Later we would learn that some tents had fallen down and some people had been injured, although not in any life-threatening way. But through it all, a small figure in the center of the stage did not waver. Surrounded by monsignori who tried to help shelter him with umbrellas, calm, unwavering, and quietly resistant to any pleas that he should go to a place of greater safety, the Holy Father stayed there with us.

And he was still there as the storm cleared, and his calm voice, so clear and so very much that of a reassuring grandfather, came over the now-restored loudspeakers: “We have lived through an adventure together!” He was greeted with the most tremendous cheers and applause and shouts of support. And then he continued greeting various language groups, and calmly went on to lead the great vigil of prayer, as the Blessed Sacrament was brought forward in a beautiful monstrance, one of Spain’s great national treasures, and everyone knelt.

Slowly, a silence descended, a peace that spread, rippling through the crowd. Fears were calmed. Talking ceased. Wet heads were bowed. Damp groundsheets became kneelers. Groups knelt together, friends who had been sheltering from the rain now calm beneath a peaceful sky and with the air fresh around them. The rain had been exactly what we needed.

Later, as we made ready to sleep through the night in the open, the mood was confident and cheerful. I woke in the night and was struck by how safe I felt. It was rather sweet to see so many sleeping people, all looking somehow innocent and vulnerable lying there...

The next day’s Mass was full of joyful music and reverent prayer. This is the John Paul II generation, which has come of age under Benedict. Make no mistake: these are young people who love their faith, and feel a strong loyalty to the Church. They are not at Mass because it is a traditional thing to do, or because it’s what everyone does, or because it’s a social convention. They have “put out into the deep” and they are here because they want to link with Jesus Christ.

Their commitment has all sorts of social and even political results flowing from it: these young people are pro-life and are sickened by the culture of abortion and the promotion of sexual activity as a matter of social pleasure. They believe in caring for the weak and vulnerable and in neighborliness and service. They won’t accept euthanasia as an answer to the needs of the elderly and sick and they are prepared to campaign and work hard to ensure that the vulnerable are defended. They want to know and understand the Catholic Faith; each one was given a copy of a new Catechism, YouCat, which explains and teaches the Faith with Scriptural and Church references in a clear, detailed and attractive style.

These young people could not be described as “traditional” Catholics — in many ways, they are not traditional at all. Their music style could at times have more in common with what we sometimes call religious “happy-clappers”: they sing things like “Jesus Christ, you are my life”, and they are enthusiastic about gathering on a street corner for a quick guitar-led impromptu time of street-evangelization with hand-clapping and chanting.

It’s all t-shirts and cut-off shorts or jeans, backpacks that rapidly acquire signatures and scribbled messages from fellow pilgrims, songs to a strummed guitar and shouts of “Ben-e-detto!”, easy chatty familiarity with anyone and everyone and a casual style of speech and manner that owes its origins to TV and pop culture and Facebook and text-talk.

The best way of describing these World Youth Day pilgrims might be as “evangelical Catholics”. They love Christ, they love to adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament and they do so with reverence and silence and for prolonged periods of time.

They love the Rosary and say it a lot. They love the Mass, and they don’t want a gimmicky liturgy, but one they can hear and see and follow with a sense of prayerful vocal participation centered on real inner unity with what is happening at the altar.

They are ready to learn and they don’t want to appear priggish, sanctimonious, or rule-bound but rather open, kind-hearted, and committed to Christ through and with the Church. They show a great loyalty to the pope, whom they revere as a father and regard with great affection. They are prepared to cheer and applaud teachers and preachers who open up for them some of the treasures of the Church’s teaching.

Make no mistake. This generation of young Catholics is well aware of the challenges facing the Church. But the vibrant faith shown at the World Youth Days of recent years is a realistic sign of hope, and there is also honesty, good humor, a willingness to learn, and some courage. In the heat and discomfort of Spain in August, I saw springtime in the Church.

Joanna Bogle, a well-known London journalist and television personality, is a Voices contributing editor.

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