After a very long day yesterday, complicated as it was by the afternoon’s thunder, lightning and torrential rain, I slept long and well last night, and awoke – dare I say it – even more refreshed! The day itself was beautiful, warm but not hot, and with a very pleasant breeze blowing through the town of Bejar. As it turned out, it was probably a good thing that the day was milder in terms of the weather.
We started our day by gathering in the central town park, where we had first arrived and been ‘collected’ by our host families. From there we embarked on a walk to the town’s shrine to her patron saint – Our Lady of El Castanar – where we would be celebrating Mass with all the pilgrims from the surrounding area and with the Bishop of Plasencia (who I would later find out is the coordinating bishop for World Youth Day in Madrid).
What I need to tell you is that the Shrine’s sanctuary stands at the top of one of the hills that surround Bejar, and we had to walk uphill for several kilometres in order to reach the shrine. The walk is apparently very popular with the locals, who often complete the walk not only out of piety but also in the cause of health and well-being. Thankfully our local hosts – and there were plenty of them – took pity on us, and scheduled a break halfway up where we were able to catch our breath and prepare for the second half.
The sanctuary itself is very beautiful, and richly decorated in a very Spanish style. A sanctuary church has stood on that site since 1720, and it’s hard to not be captured by the sense of history and the sense of faith in that place. It is one of those places that being Catholic connects you to generation upon generation of faithful and faith filled prayer in that place. It was very moving to walk into that place – it was even more moving to celebrate Eucharist in that place, particularly with young people from Korea, Austria and Australia who had come on pilgrimage to that place. It was moving beyond words.
Speaking of Austria…the majority of the Austrian pilgrims are spending their time in the Diocese of Plasencia in another village. There were however five Austrians who found themselves in Bejar, and yesterday we Australians adopted them into our group. They were almost like orphans, but no more! They have become honorary Aussies (with apologies to Kevin Rudd). Today we met the rest of this group of Austrians from the Archdiocese of Vienna’s Catholic Youth movement…and the two groups, Austrians and Australians, have become firm and fast friends. It was amazing to witness the enthusiastic singing being shared by both groups as we waited for lunch to be ready. This truly is the stuff of World Youth Days…young people from all around the world coming together to share that which they have in common – their Christian faith, and their desire to live out that faith within the Catholic Church.
Now back to the Mass. Again, this was a powerful experience, and all the more so because of the charm, humour and faith of the Bishop of Plasencia who presided. There was a very real, palpable expression of faith during Mass, resplendent as it was with the anticipation of our time in Madrid and the presence of Benedict XVI. I couldn’t help but get caught up in it.
After lunch, while the rest of the group was engaged in other activities, I took the opportunity for some time alone, in order to reflect and pray. I had fully intended to take a siesta, but on the walk down the hill I decided that my own mini-pilgrimage would be more beneficial. So I visited the three churches here in Bejar, and in each place found exposition in progress. It was very clearly meant to be, and after time spent in prayer in each place I find myself in a place of peace. This is very clearly the Lord’s work, and ’tis wonderful to behold.
After my spiritual refreshment I found myself in need of more physical refreshment, and so have sat for the last few hours in a bar on the Plaza de Ayuntamiento (i.e. City Hall) and have been refreshing myself with some local produce, and some brewed beverages. It has been wonderful to watch the goings on and the goings by in this small town of Bejar.
The Days in the Diocese program for tonight consisted of a concert and cultural evening, featuring young musicians from Bejar and surrounding areas. To say this group of young people were talented would be an understatement. Their skill, their enthusiasm, their repertoire was inspiring – well inspiring of jealousy anyway. They could not only play a broad range of instruments, but they could sing as well. It put the poor efforts of the South Koreans, the Austrians, and us Aussies to shame.
At the end of the evening, we had the opportunity to present an image of Our Lady, painted by noted Indigenous painter Richard Campbell, to the people and parish of Bejar, as a small token of our appreciation for their hospitality and welcome. Given the very powerful devotion to Our Lady here in Bejar, not to mention in Spain, it was a gift that was very warmly received by Don Miguel the parish priest. We’ve been assured that our image will hang beside images of Our Lady of El Castanar well into the future.
All in all, a very wonderful day…