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 legaciesand giftsto 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.
years later to this year’s World Youth Day, held once again in Spainthe 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 yearfor the first time
in the country’s historythere were more civil wedding ceremonies than church
greatest tell-tale sign of Spain’s rejection of its Catholic values was the
electionand reelectionof 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 Pontiffbeginning 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 freedomincluding 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 Centerthe 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
The World Youth Day
prayer vigil took place on Saturday evening at Cuatro Vientos airporta 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
peopleone from each continentpublicly 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.