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WYD - The Songs, the Joy, the Chaos and the Silence… Why we all flocked to Madrid this summer

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

August 22, 2011
Dear Friends of Salt + Light,
It would take me a good week to respond to all of the mail, e-mails, calls and messages we received over the past two weeks as Salt + Light Television tried our best to bring you World Youth Day 2011. Thank you for your very kind messages of affirmation and encouragement. The line that keeps showing up in the messages is: “We felt like we were there with you!”
Our signal was carried not only across Canada, but also in the USA and Australia, and to many people who joined our audio broadcasts on the Catholic Channel of Sirius Radio in the USA as well as on Radio Maria Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world watched World Youth Day through the lenses of Salt + Light Television in Canada.
It is the day after the concluding mass of Spain’s 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid. Hundreds of thousands of “pilgrims” are still roaming the streets of Madrid with their flags and songs. Hundreds of buses are now being loaded with luggage and weary pilgrims as they return to various destinations of Europe. Madrid’s Barajas airport is probably experiencing the busiest day of its history as pilgrims fly off to the four corners of the earth. Those of us who worked on the event, and covered it through media outlets from throughout the world (6000+ journalists formally accredited to the event!) were able to sleep a bit this morning! Many of us picked up summer colds with the extreme heat outdoors and heavily air conditioned hotel rooms!
The organizers are announcing that 1.4 million people packed the Cuarto Vientos Airforce Base on Saturday night for the Vigil, and 1.5 million people took part in the final mass with Pope Benedict XVI yesterday morning. They are not too pleased to admit that 250,000+ pilgrims were turned away from the site due to the overflow crowd. Many of those turned away were Canadians, Australians, Americans and God alone knows how many others. I wonder if Spain was ready for the influx of pilgrims. Many accredited journalists with their badges got nowhere near the principal venues throughout the week!
Some are now doing their perfunctory post-mortems on the aspects that worked and especially on all the things that didn’t work out with the Madrid organization of this mega-event for the Catholic Church. On an organizational level, there is much to be desired. But that is not the full story… No matter what may be the topics of countless discussions around tapas, sangria and Spanish cerveza, seeds were sown last week in abundance. We must now pray fervently for the World Youth Day harvest.
For many of the young people who attend World Youth days, they come out of the tsunamis of so much wishful thinking that swept across the Western World telling them that God wasn’t essential to their life; that Jesus was just another nice guy in history; and that they could be spiritual and religious without belonging to the Church. Perhaps they have been conditioned to postpone decisions, have a good time, to not live for others, or to enjoy sex and pleasure without responsibility. If some young people think and feel this way, it is not their fault since in so many cases, they haven’t been taught! When they come to World Youth Days, they are taught and inspired by the pastors and shepherds of our Church, together with the Pope, that life is only worth living when we make decisions rather than keep many options open. They are taught that true freedom lies in commitment to Christ, to loving, just, honest, relationships with others and to appreciating the beauty, sacredness and power of marriage, family life and human sexuality.
World Youth Day is a golden opportunity to allow the bishops and pastors of the Church to become teachers of the Word, companions on the journey, and those who strengthen their brothers and sisters in their faith. The World Youth Day is not a boot camp for Catholic crusaders of various causes, it is a school of formation for lovers of Jesus who wish to become disciples, apologists, and authentic, joyful witnesses of the Gospel. It is a practicum for the Christian life.
World Youth Days offer the best of the Catholic Church to young people and to the world: sacraments (especially Eucharist and Reconciliation); the Word of God, piety, devotion, the saints, and the beauty of our Catholic faith. World Youth Days offer times when liturgy in all of its diversity and beauty becomes a true, participatory instrument of worship and adoration… when the ancient languages of the Church, especially Latin, become profound instruments of unity. How moving were the moments when the Latin Taizé chants united assemblies of thousands of young adults over the past week, and when sung mass parts in Latin filled churches and arenas, stadiums, where the catechesis masses were held. At World Youth Days, liturgy is never a performance by a few but the “true work of the people.”
What does all of this noise, chaos, liturgy, prayer, song and disorganization mean in Madrid! The genius of Blessed John Paul II in his establishment of World Youth Days 26 years ago was clearly evident once again in Madrid. Madrid needed World Youth Day to infuse Spain with joy and reignite the flame of faith. Just as with every nation that has had the blessed privilege of hosting these events, Spain needed World Youth Day to call it back to its deeply Christian origins in a land rich in Christian traditions and history. It is only when a nation and a society reclaim their original Christian roots and identity that they can ever hope to become authentically multicultural, tolerant, and open to others.
The World Youth Day is a gift from God given to each host country -- to wake us up and remind us that we are called to be happy, to be people of joy and gratitude, and to be peacemakers and bridge builders in a troubled world. World Youth Days prepare young adults to give a reason for the hope that is in them, helping them to be convinced of the Christian message so that they will be convincing instruments of the New Evangelization. World Youth Days form young men and women to be lovers of the Truth and lovers of the Church. World Youth Days invite young people to make thoughtful, life-changing decisions. They help us to see the world “upside down”, from the cross of Jesus, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan so powerfully stated in his stirring homily at the mass for the pilgrims from the United States of America last Saturday morning. At World Youth Days, young people come together to commit themselves, in the strength of their faith in Jesus Christ, to the great cause of peace and human solidarity.
Three moments will remain with me from World Youth Day in Spain. On Tuesday morning, for the first time in the history of Canadian participation in World Youth Days, Canadians held the distinction of holding the first official event. A special national gathering was held at Palacio de Deportes, better known as the Love and Life Centre. On behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, I arranged the morning prayer service that drew together 22 Canadian Bishops, nearly 100 priests and over 5000 young Canadians of the 6000 who had registered for WYD 2011. As a delegation of young people processed into the arena bearing the World Youth Day Cross and the Icon of Mary, and a mixed choir from Vancouver and Sherbrooke, Quebec sang the “Song of the Cross” from World Youth Day 2002, I could not help but quietly give thanks to God for the flood of memories of the blessed event in Canada nine years ago. It was a very moving prayer service for all of us.
On Friday evening, we hosted at the Palacio de Deportes a special viewing of the Stations of the Cross that were taking place a few blocks away on the streets of Madrid. Due to overcrowding and poor visibility on the streets of anything that was taking place during the evening ceremony, we opened up the Palacio to those wised to view the ceremony on the big screens. Using social networking, we got word out in the afternoon that people could watch the stations on the big screens in the Palacio. Over eight thousand people showed up in a matter of hours. At 7:00 p.m., I led the assembly in a half-hour preparation for the Stations of the Cross, sharing with them the history of the ancient devotion to the Lord’s sorrowful way, followed by the 90 minute telecast live from the streets of Madrid.
Throughout the television presentation, there was total silence in the arena. And then, when we arrived at the death of Jesus on the Cross, something strange happened. It was almost like a wave that swept across the arena. Every single person rose from their seat and knelt down on the pavement. The sound of all of those wooden seats in the Palacio creaking and hitting the backs of the chairs, and the knowledge that a huge arena of people had suddenly knelt on the cold, concrete floor will remain with me. It was a poignant reminder of the deep Catholic culture that unites us all together at this blessed event of World Youth Day.
The second moment that struck me was a bit more worldly… in fact, it had nothing to do with the events of World Youth Day 2011. On Saturday morning, having found myself with one hour free in between events, I ducked into a barbershop not far from the “Love and Life Centre” to get a haircut! There were two barbers present, both from Morocco. Both were Muslims. Of course I had my black Roman Collar and all the official badges of WYD so they knew what I was doing in Madrid. Both were intrigued at what was happening in their city throughout the week. The one cutting my hair said to me: “You people must have some beautiful stories in your religion to gather so many young people together for this event!” I smiled and responded to him: “Yes, we do indeed have some beautiful stories in our religion. Before I left, I told the two men that his name was Jesus and he was God’s Son. They asked me if I could give them something from the event. I searched in my pilgrim bag and gave both barbers some of the holy cards I had collected throughout the week.
The third aspect of this World Youth Day that will remain with me were the striking moments of silence in the midst of all the noise! At various moments in the large gatherings of liturgies, prayers, devotions, and most especially during the mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI yesterday, there were long pauses of silence. One of the national police officers assigned to the event said to me: “This is a miracle. How could they be shouting out one moment and suddenly remain silent for 20 minutes?” It’s all part of the culture of being Catholic. And it is something that Pope Benedict cherishes deeply.
In his letter announcing World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain, from Pope Benedict wrote: “Now, at a time when Europe greatly needs to rediscover its Christian roots, our meeting will take place in Madrid with the theme: “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith” (cf. Col 2:7). I encourage you to take part in this event, which is so important for the Church in Europe and for the universal Church. I would like all young people – those who share our faith in Jesus Christ, but also those who are wavering or uncertain, or who do not believe in him – to share this experience, which can prove decisive for their lives. It is an experience of the Lord Jesus, risen and alive, and of his love for each of us.”
Pope Benedict XVI challenged all of us yesterday in his final homily at World Youth Day in Madrid. Let me conclude with his own words which offer an answer to the great question of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel: “Who do you say that I am?”
“Having faith means drawing support from the faith of your brothers and sisters, even as your own faith serves as a support for the faith of others. I ask you, dear friends, to love the Church which brought you to birth in the faith, which helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ and which led you to discover the beauty of his love. Growing in friendship with Christ necessarily means recognizing the importance of joyful participation in the life of your parishes, communities and movements, as well as the celebration of Sunday Mass, frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the cultivation of personal prayer and meditation on God’s word.
Friendship with Jesus will also lead you to bear witness to the faith wherever you are, even when it meets with rejection or indifference. We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others. So do not keep Christ to yourselves! Share with others the joy of your faith. The world needs the witness of your faith, it surely needs God. I think that the presence here of so many young people, coming from all over the world, is a wonderful proof of the fruitfulness of Christ’s command to the Church: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). You too have been given the extraordinary task of being disciples and missionaries of Christ in other lands and countries filled with young people who are looking for something greater and, because their heart tells them that more authentic values do exist, they do not let themselves be seduced by the empty promises of a lifestyle which has no room for God.”
Many of us are going home from Madrid with more questions than answers… questions that will help us to reflect on real issues and keep our faith alive. Who do we say that He is for us? For me? Why did we all flock to Madrid for this chaotic experience? Is it perhaps because our religion does indeed have beautiful stories that still attract the multitudes?
Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Photo credits: WYD Cross at Vigil courtesy of WYD National Office, Madrid; Cross in hands of pilgrims courtesy of Bill Wittman.