The year was 1989. The continent of Europe was changing. The Solidarity movement of Poland had gained strong momentum, the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia would take place in November, and the first steps toward the reunification of East and West Germany had begun. This moment in history would later be referred to as the “Autumn of Nations,” and it was at this same time that Spain hosted the world’s fourth, and the country’s first, World Youth Day, in Santiago de Compostela.
In August of 1989, Pope John Paul II traveled to Compostela to continue a tradition that he had initiated in Rome during the International Youth Year of 1985. World Youth Day, when the Pope calls together the young faithful to encourage them to consider a certain theme and to participate in an intensive period of catechesis, prayer, daily Mass, and other celebrations of the faith, is one of the late Pope John Paul II’s greatest legacies—and gifts—to the youth of the Church. In his letter to “The Youth of the World,” written in preparation for the pilgrimage to Compostela, the late Pope announced that the theme of the 1989 World Youth Day would be “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” based on John 14:6.
Fast-forward 22 years later to this year’s World Youth Day, held once again in Spain—the only country outside of Italy to play host to World Youth Day twice. Spain, a country that was once a beacon of Catholicism, a country that has given the Church some of its greatest saints, the powerful ministry of the Jesuits, and the prelature of Opus Dei, is now home to a Church in decline. While 75 percent of Spaniards still consider themselves Catholic, that number is down from 84 percent in 1998, according to Spain’s Center for Sociological Investigations. Moreover, only one in five Spaniards attends Mass regularly, and the country’s churches and convents are emptying out quickly. According to Vida Nueva, a Spanish Catholic weekly, last year—for the first time in the country’s history—there were more civil wedding ceremonies than church weddings.
Perhaps the greatest tell-tale sign of Spain’s rejection of its Catholic values was the election—and reelection—of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2004 and 2008. The election of Zapatero came only three days after the deadly Madrid metro bombing in 2004 by radical Islamic terrorists. The March 2004 election became a referendum on the Spanish government’s involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and was widely influenced by Zapatero’s campaign promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. Since then, he’s also managed to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption within Spain and relax Spanish laws on divorce and abortion. The eight years of Zapatero rule have been met with staunch opposition from the Catholic leadership of the country, under the watchful eye of Pope Benedict XVI since the beginning of his papacy in April 2005. In fact, Pope Benedict has now visited Spain more than any other country during his time as Pontiff—beginning with his first visit to Valencia in 2006, followed by a trip to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona in 2010, and now his most recent visit to Madrid in August 2011.
Given the current political and religious climate in Spain, it is no small coincidence that the Holy Father chose Madrid, Spain’s capital, as the site of his third World Youth Day. In doing so, Pope Benedict came to Madrid not just to recall the Catholic heritage of Spaniards, but to ask a question: What kind of society do you want to build for yourselves and for your children? The Pope presented the country with two options: one that is based on an aggressive form of secularism and that demands a rejection of God and values in the public square, or one that prizes truth and freedom—including religious freedom.
A pilgrim’s journey
From August 16-21, 2011, the city of Madrid was flooded with young people from around the world. While official counts have differed, approximately one million people were in attendance for the days of the youth festival, with that number reaching more than two million for the final prayer vigil and Mass. The now standard World Youth Day program consists of three days of catechesis and daily Mass, the Way of the Cross on Friday, and a Saturday pilgrimage to the vigil where pilgrims spend the night praying with their friends, participating in Eucharistic Adoration, and, if they’re lucky, getting some sleep before the Sunday morning Mass with the Holy Father.
My home-base during this week was the Love and Life Center—the largest English-speaking location for pilgrims in Madrid, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life. Madrid’s Palacio de Deportes, a multipurpose venue that is normally reserved for international pop stars, was transformed into a site for catechesis, prayer, and daily Mass, hosting more than 15,000 people at a time. Frequently thousands of others had to be turned away due to safety regulations. During the three days of catechesis, pilgrims were taught by Archbishop Miller of Vancouver, Cardinal Pell of Sydney, and Archbishop Dolan of New York. Afternoons and evenings were filled with guest speakers such as Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, who talked about John Paul II’s theology of the body; Father Robert Barron, who introduced his new Catholicism documentary series; and Archbishop Chaput, who spoke about religious freedom. The center also showcased concerts by popular Catholic bands.
The World Youth Day prayer vigil took place on Saturday evening at Cuatro Vientos airport—a large dusty field outside of Madrid that was crammed with pilgrims of all ages. As far as the eye could see, pilgrims were setting up camp to spend the evening with the Holy Father. Despite temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the joyful pilgrim spirits were not deterred. Large groups spent time together praying the Rosary, other groups sang songs of praise, while some threw Frisbees and waved their national flags. Meanwhile, fire trucks maneuvered their way through the crowds, soaking them with water in order to fend off heat exhaustion.
As the time approached for the Holy Father to arrive, a sea of black cassocks and scarlet zucchettos flowed onto the stage as bishops and cardinals arrived. The pilgrim spirit was not limited to those on the field; before they took their seats, bishops and cardinals rushed to the edge of the stage to be as close to their flocks as possible. Some pilgrims tossed national flags and other items onstage, and these were proudly received by the Church leaders, who joined in the singing and the waving of flags as they joined arms in a sign of visible union with one another and with the pilgrims.
This excitement only increased when the Pope arrived and the vigil celebration began. During the vigil, Pope Benedict began a new World Youth Day tradition in which young people—one from each continent—publicly asked the Holy Father questions about their faith. These questions were the honest, difficult questions of young people attempting to reconcile their Catholic faith and Christ’s love with issues of importance to them, such as poverty and famine, how to uphold and defend marriage in an era in which that institution is constantly under attack, and how to confidently live out one’s faith in a time of widespread secularization.
Before the Holy Father could fully respond to these questions, however, a fierce storm set in. Lightening filled the sky and rain soaked all present. While the Pope’s remarks were cut short by the inclement weather, the pilgrim spirit only grew stronger. As the rain poured down, pilgrims lifted their voices in song, chanting, “We are the youth of the Pope.” And while the Pope’s advisors encouraged him to leave the vigil and take shelter from the storm, the Pope remained at Cuatro Vientos and followed through with the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
A new day
The next morning, when the Pope returned to Cuatro Vientos for the concluding Mass, the sun was shining and the conditions of the night before seemed to be a distant memory. In the closing words of his World Youth Day homily, Pope Benedict encouraged those present: “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.”
By recounting the words of Matthew’s Gospel and asking, “Who do you say that I am?”, Pope Benedict was posing a question to the Spanish people. Their answer will determine the fate of Spain.