“You Will Be Swimming Against the Tide”

Surpassing expectations, World Youth Day drew two million pilgrims to Madrid.

In his 1985 year-end address to the Roman Curia, Blessed John Paul II announced the institution of World Youth Day. Following the success of Palm Sunday Masses with youth in St. Peter’s Square in 1984 and in 1985—300,000 attended each time—the pope said that “the Church must look to young people as her hope: first, because from them come the vocations that are the guarantee of fruitfulness of the Church in the third millennium.” To young people, with “their questions, their openness, and their hopes,” the Church, he said, must communicate “the certainty who is Christ, the Truth who is Christ, the love who is Christ.”

Since that time, the Church has celebrated 26 annual World Youth Days, 15 at the diocesan level and 11 at the international level. These 11 gatherings have attracted some 16 million pilgrims in total. Five million went to Manila in 1995, and two million went to Rome for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000; the crowds in Madrid for the 2011 World Youth Day rivaled those in Rome and far surpassed most media predictions.

“Young people confounded conventional wisdom again by descending en masse on secularized Madrid to celebrate their Catholic faith,” Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy added, “Didn’t they get the memo circulated by their wiser, more worldly elders, the one that says organized religion is out of vogue and the pope is out of touch?”

On the evening of August 16, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela celebrated World Youth Day’s opening Mass in Madrid’s grand Plaza de Cibeles. In his lengthy homily, in which he paid tribute to Spain’s Christian roots and to Blessed John Paul II, the Madrid cardinal preached that

you are the generation of Benedict XVI. It is not the same as that of John Paul II. The youth of today, with weakened existential roots due to a rampant spiritual and moral relativism, are imprisoned by the dominant power and can find no solid foundation on which to build your life in today’s culture and society, even sometimes, in the family.… Youth of the 21st century need, even more than previous generations, to find the Lord through the only path that has proven spiritually effective: that of a humble and simple pilgrim seeking God’s face. The youth of today need to see Jesus Christ when he comes to meet them in the Word, in the sacraments as well, and most importantly in the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance, in the poor and the sick, in those brothers experiencing difficulty and in need of help.

In his greeting to the youth attending the opening Mass, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, emphasized the centrality of faith. “Faith is a decisive factor in each person’s life,” he said. “Everything changes according to whether God exists or not. Faith is like a root that is nourished by the lifeblood of the word of God and the sacraments. It is the foundation, the rock on which life is built, the dependable compass that guides our choices and gives clear direction to our lives.”

On August 17 and 18, participants had the opportunity to attend cultural events as well as catechetical sessions led by bishops from around the world, including eight US bishops. One of these American bishops was Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, who urged youth to shun music that is “trash.”

“It is evil because it distorts the gift of human sexuality, the gift of sexual intimacy, the gift of human life,” Bishop Aquila said, according to EWTN News. “Be not afraid to get rid of that sort of music from your iPods or your iPads or your iPhones or wherever you put that kind of music. And don’t be afraid to shut it off because it can play constantly in your head.”

Buen Retiro Park—at 350 acres, Madrid’s largest—was home to a vocations fair and 200 portable confessionals. The vocations fair could have a major impact in the United States for decades to come: according to recent studies conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 21 percent of newly ordained priests and 20 percent of newly professed women religious have attended a World Youth Day.

For much of the week, thousands of English-speaking pilgrims adored the Blessed Sacrament and heard talks and concerts at the Love and Life Center, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life, the religious institute founded by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in 1991.

“As our sisters, who are used to speaking one heart at a time to women who are struggling and in crisis, plugged in ear-buds and became proficient in tasks like minute-to-minute event production, stage management, and crowd flow, the same Holy Spirit we rely on for our regular work stepped in to guide this new work,” recounted Sister Mary Grace, SV. “Thousands learned how to pray and experienced the wonder of having their hearts opened in prayer. Thousands went to confession each day.”

“The sincerity and prayerfulness of the youth impressed me,” said Father John Phalen, CSC, president of Holy Cross Family Ministries, who delivered a talk at the Love and Life Center on the Rosary. “I celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation for hours with truly devout and repentant young people, admiring how well they had prepared themselves and truly sought to grow in the spiritual life.”

Other speakers also noted the prayerfulness of the youth taking part. Father Phillip Hurley, SJ, the youth and young adult director for the Apostleship of Prayer’s US national office, spoke on the importance of making a morning offering and an evening examination of conscience. He said he was moved by large congregations “singing praises to the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament” during periods of Eucharistic adoration that he organized in the days before World Youth Day officially began. 

Michael Hanby, a biotechnology and culture professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, gave a talk on the theology of the body. He spoke to CWR about his experiences at World Youth Day, noting:

I think what is most remarkable and encouraging to me is the way that the vitality of the Church, which is real but invisible much of the time, becomes visible on occasions like this. You see it in the sheer numbers of young people responding to the Holy Father, but more than that, in the joy they take in being alive and in being Catholic…I was unprepared for the sheer number of people or the joyfulness of the event. I was particularly taken with the singing in the streets. As I was walking back to my hotel from dinner late one night down a dark narrow street, I came across a group of teenage girls from France, I think, maybe four or six of them, who were walking arm in arm singing a Marian hymn in polyphony. I thought, “Where am I?”

Contrasting with the prayerfulness of the youth were the actions of protestors, some of whom clashed with riot police on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Madrid. “I’ve never seen protests like this before,” said George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré, who worked for the US bishops’ pro-life office for a decade and is now a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity. She told CWR that what she saw in the streets included “lesbian ‘kiss-ins’ and pornographic representations of the pope, priests, and nuns—very disturbing stuff.”


On August 18, King Juan Carlos I, Spain’s head of state since 1975, welcomed Pope Benedict upon his midday arrival at Madrid-Barajas Airport. Noting the Pontiff had visited Spain three times in six years, the king referred to the frequency of the Pope’s visits as a “special distinction.” The 73-year-old monarch noted Spain’s Christian roots—“the artistic, cultural, and religious contribution of Christianity is the key to understanding the historical personality of Spain”—and rued the “profound crisis of values” and high unemployment rate, which stood at 20.9 percent in the second quarter of 2011.

Thanking the king for his greeting and acknowledging the hospitality of Spaniards who welcomed pilgrims from around the world, Pope Benedict said:

I have come here to meet thousands of young people from all over the world, Catholics committed to Christ searching for the truth that will give real meaning to their existence. I come as the Successor of Peter, to confirm them all in the faith, with days of intense pastoral activity, proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; to motivate the commitment to build up the Kingdom of God in the world among us; to exhort young people to know Christ personally as a friend and so, rooted in his Person, to become faithful followers and valiant witnesses.

“Many of them have heard the voice of God, perhaps only as a little whisper, which has led them to search for him more diligently and to share with others the experience of the force which he has in their lives,” the Pope continued. “They see the prevailing superficiality, consumerism, and hedonism, the widespread banalization of sexuality, the lack of solidarity, the corruption. They know that, without God, it would be hard to confront these challenges and to be truly happy, and thus pouring out their enthusiasm in the attainment of an authentic life. But, with God beside them, they will possess light to walk by and reasons to hope, unrestrained before their highest ideals, which will motivate their generous commitment to build a society where human dignity and true brotherhood are respected.”

That evening, Pope Benedict arrived at Plaza de Cibeles, greeting youth in Spanish, French, English, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Polish. The Pontiff urged young people to “use these days to know Christ better,” to “remain steadfast in your aim for holiness, and, in the face of our weaknesses which sometimes overwhelm us, we can rely on the mercy of the Lord who is always ready to help us again and who offers us pardon in the sacrament of penance.”

“Be prudent and wise, build your lives upon the firm foundation which is Christ,” he added. “Then you will be blessed and happy, and your happiness will influence others. They will wonder what the secret of your life is and they will discover that the rock which underpins the entire building and upon which rests your whole existence is the very Person of Christ, your friend, brother and Lord, the Son of God incarnate, who gives meaning to all the universe.”

On the morning of August 19, Pope Benedict offered Mass privately at the chapel of the apostolic nunciature and paid a visit to King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía at the Palace of Zarzuela on the outskirts of the capital. Traveling to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, whose famed monastery was constructed under King Philip II during the Spanish Golden Age, Pope Benedict delivered midday addresses to young women religious and young university professors.

The Pope called the religious to “Gospel radicalism,” for “in a world of relativism and mediocrity, we need that radicalism to which your consecration, as a way of belonging to the God who is loved above all things, bears witness.” This Gospel radicalism, the Pope taught, is expressed in consecration to the chaste, poor, and obedient Christ, in communion with the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, and in fidelity to one’s particular mission.

“Your lives must testify to the personal encounter with Christ which has nourished your consecration, and to all the transforming power of that encounter,” he said. “This is all the more important today when “we see a certain ‘eclipse of God’ taking place, a kind of amnesia which, albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity, is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity.”

In his address to young university professors, Pope Benedict lamented the reduction of the university’s mission to “forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labor at any given time.” Instead, the university “has always been, and is always called to be, the ‘house’ where one seeks the truth proper to the human person.… The Gospel message perceives a rationality inherent in creation and considers man as a creature participating in, and capable of attaining to, an understanding of this rationality.” University professors are thus called to be “men and women committed to teaching the faith and making it credible to human reason. And we do this not simply by our teaching, but by the way we live our faith and embody it, just as the Word took flesh and dwelt among us.… We must not draw students to ourselves, but set them on the path toward the truth which we seek together.”

“The speech to young professors at El Escorial was very important,” said Father José Granados, vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, who gave a presentation at the Love and Life Center. “World Youth Day is not only about emotions, but has to do with the quest for truth; only truth makes our love last; truth and love go together, in a harmony that illumines the path of humanity.”

Pope Benedict then returned to the apostolic nunciature, where he had an early afternoon lunch with 12 young people. Late in the afternoon, he received Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose positions on abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage have provoked tension with the Spanish hierarchy since he assumed office in 2004. The prime minister’s party was trounced in May regional elections, and Zapatero is not seeking reelection in November.

In the evening, Pope Benedict returned to the Plaza de Cibeles for the Way of the Cross. The Hermanitas de la Cruz (Little Sisters of the Cross), a community that serves the poor, prepared the meditations. The Pontiff said afterwards:

In the face of such disinterested love, we find ourselves asking, filled with wonder and gratitude: What can we do for him? What response shall we give him? St. John puts it succinctly: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Christ’s passion urges us to take upon our own shoulders the sufferings of the world, in the certainty that God is not distant or far removed from man and his troubles.… Be sure not to pass by on the other side in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give of your very best: your capacity for love and compassion.… Let us look upon Christ, hanging on the harsh wood of the Cross, and let us ask him to teach us this mysterious wisdom of the Cross, by which man lives.


On August 20, after hearing the confessions of four young people, Pope Benedict offered Mass at Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral. The Pontiff called upon the 6,000 seminarians in attendance to “become apostles with Christ and like Christ, and to accompany your fellow men and women along their journey as companions and servants.” He added, “We have to be saints so as not to create a contradiction between the sign that we are and the reality that we wish to signify. Meditate well upon this mystery of the Church, living the years of your formation in deep joy, humbly, clear-mindedly, and with radical fidelity to the Gospel, in an affectionate relation to the time spent and the people among whom you live. No one chooses the place or the people to whom he is sent, and every time has its own challenges; but in every age God gives the right grace to face and overcome those challenges with love and realism.”

At the end of Mass, Pope Benedict announced that he would name St. John of Avila (1500-1569), the patron of Spanish secular clergy, as the 34th doctor of the Church. Known as “the Apostle of Andalusia,” the saint wrote on the theology of the priesthood.

Following lunch with regional bishops, Pope Benedict thanked World Youth Day organizers and visited a home for disabled youth. “These witnesses speak to us, first and foremost, of the dignity of all human life, created in the image of God,” he said. “No suffering can efface this divine image imprinted in the depths of our humanity. But there is more: because the Son of God wanted freely to embrace suffering and death, we are also capable of seeing God’s image in the face of those who suffer. This preferential love of the Lord for the suffering helps us to see others more clearly and to give them, above and beyond their material demands, the look of love which they need. But this can only happen as the fruit of a personal encounter with Christ.”

At 8:30 in the evening, an estimated 1.4 million youth joined Pope Benedict for a prayer vigil at Cuatro Vientos Airport, during which he consecrated all the world’s youth to the Sacred Heart. A sudden windy rainstorm led the Pope to abandon his prepared talk; after a period of silence, he told the crowd, “I thank you for your joy and your resistance. Your strength is greater than the rain. Thank you. With rain the Lord has sent us many blessings.”

“Be proud of the gift of faith which you have received, as it will illumine your life at every moment,” he added in French. “Draw strength from the faith of your neighbors, from the faith of the Church! … Gather with others to deepen it, be faithful to the celebration of the Eucharist, the mystery of faith par excellence. Christ alone can respond to your aspirations. Let yourselves be seized by God, so that your presence in the Church will give her new life.”

The program continued with silent Eucharistic adoration and Benediction. “We have lived together an adventure,” the Pope concluded. “Strengthened by your faith in Christ, you have resisted the rain…I thank you for the fine example that you have given. As happened tonight, you can always, with Christ, endure the trials of life. Do not forget this. I thank you all.”

World Youth Day culminated on August 21 with Sunday Mass at Cuatro Vientos Airport. The Pontiff preached:

Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.”

The Church, he continued, “is not simply a human institution, like any other. Rather, she is closely joined to God. Christ himself speaks of her as ‘his’ Church. Christ cannot be separated from the Church any more than the head can be separated from the body.… Following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own,’  or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.”

“We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others,” Pope Benedict added. “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.”

All did not go smoothly at the papal Mass, the culminating event of World Youth Day. Only 100,000 of the estimated two million people who attended the Mass were able to receive Holy Communion. Catholic News Service reported that during the rainstorm at the vigil the night before, Spanish police collapsed the tents that housed the vast majority of the unconsecrated hosts for the next day’s Mass, rendering them unusable.

At the conclusion of the Mass, during his customary Sunday Angelus address, the Holy Father announced that Rio de Jainero will be the site of the 2013 World Youth Day. “Faith is not a theory,” the Pope said during that address. “To believe is to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus and to live in friendship with him in fellowship with others, in the communion of the Church. Entrust the whole of your lives to Christ and bring your friends to find their way to the source of life, to God.”

“You will be swimming against the tide in a society with a relativistic culture which wishes neither to seek nor hold on to the truth,” he added. “But it was for this moment in history, with its great challenges and opportunities, that the Lord sent you, so that, through your faith, the Good News of Jesus might continue to resound throughout the earth.”

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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.