My WYD Experience – Some Final Reflections

I’ve been home from my journey for almost a week, and I still cannot escape the profundity of the experience. While there were many and varied challenges at various points along the journey, I feel particularly blessed to have been part of the experience and the journey – for a whole variety of reasons.

First among these is that I managed to travel overseas. As I’ve already mentioned this was my first such experience, and I could think of no better way to take that first step then on pilgrimage and in the company of a wonderful band of fellow pilgrims – some of whom were neophytes like me, and others who were far more experienced in the challenges and opportunities of overseas travel. From this perspective alone I have had the opportunity to expand my horizons, and to experience things that until now only existed within my imagination. As I said to someone on my return I’ve got the itch now – I have a passport and I’m not afraid to use it!

The second source of blessing is that I have powerfully reminded that the Church is larger than the parish community that I have been called to serve. Amidst all the demands and challenges of daily life in a parish I believe that it is possible to forget that the Church exists beyond the boundaries of the parish. While we might from time to time connect to Church at a diocesan level – particularly when the Bishop is involved – most people relate to Church through their parish community, through the community that gathers on Sunday to celebrate and worship, and through the various agencies of the parish – including the parish school – that give day to day life to the community in which it is situated. Travelling to Spain for World Youth Day (re)opened my eyes to the larger reality of Church, to the people of faith from all around the world with whom I share the precious gift of faith but who don’t look like me, don’t speak like me, and who have different challenges and demands on their daily life. These too are the Church, and I have been blessed to experience firsthand the “bigger picture” of Church – something that I knew intellectually, but hadn’t yet experienced at the more profound “pilgrims on the journey” level.

You might wonder about that, particularly in light of the celebration of the last World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008. While it is true that I was involved in that experience – both here in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, and for one day in Sydney – it would seem to me that because I wasn’t a pilgrim per se (being rather involved in the provision of first aid during Days in the Diocese, and just merely wandering around on the day I went to Sydney) my experience of World Youth Day – and of the Church Universal – wasn’t the same as my experience in Madrid and in Spain. I guess in 2008 I was more involved in caring for those on pilgrimage rather than embracing the true nature of being a pilgrim, and while WYD2008 was certainly a powerful experience, it doesn’t compare to my experience of WYD2011, where I was in a different role and in a difference place both physically and personally.

The third source of blessing were the people of Spain, and in particular the people of Bejar among whom we celebrated Days in the Diocese. Their warmth and hospitality, their welcome and encouragement can only be described as humbling and life-giving. And this was true not only of the people of Bejar but of the Spanish in general who, despite their very flexible approach to time management and organisation, were warmly hospitable and sought to make the pilgrims’ experience of their beautiful and historic country. Despite the few little hiccups along the way, I came to enjoy Spain, and would love to go back – as a tourist! – and explore more of the country, meet more of the people, and encounter more of the history of this wonderfully warm country. I would in particular love to go back to Bejar and spend more time there among the people who welcomed this wandering pilgrim into their community and into their hearts.

The last, and greatest, source of blessing is to be found in the thirty other pilgrims with whom I shared this experience. Very few of us knew each other prior to embarking on this journey together, but by the end of our time together we were a family, with all the joys and challenges that brings along with it. There were days when there were difficulties and strains in relationships, there were days when the sense of shared joy among the group was palpable, and there was everything in between. So like a family that it wasn’t funny, but that made our shared experience all the richer. So for the record, I extend my thanks and my love to Sarah, Elroy, Emma, Samuel, James, Baden, Brock, Caity, Ryan, Liz, Harry, Aidan, Tania, Alex, Kylie, Annette, Ray, Marion, Kelly, Raelene, Terry, Lynette, Caprice, Lynda, Ally, Tamara and Larissa. And my special thanks, admiration and love to our group leaders, Sue, Brian and Bernadette without whom this journey would not have been possible nor come to fruition. Thank you all for being who you are, and for blessing me with your company.

As a last thought…I was asked by a parishioner just after I returned what I had gained from the experience of World Youth Day in Madrid. I was slightly taken aback – not because I couldn’t answer the question, but rather by the way it was phrased. There was an expectation on the part of the parishioner for me to be different than when I left, and to be able to provide a checklist of just exactly how I was different. Unfortunately God, and God’s Spirit, doesn’t work like that – they’re more interested in the long term than in the short term. I hope that parishioner is prepared to wait for months and years for the true rewards of my WYD 2011 experience to bear fruit. Until then, this pilgrim remains on the journey.

The WYD Journey – Day 12

This last day of the formal celebrations of World Youth Day started very very early for this pilgrim. The alarm sounded at 0430 and it felt like I had only just drifted off to sleep. But I was up much easier on this day than I would be on any other occasion when my alarm sounded at such a time. I showered and changed into the one and only clerical shirt that I had brought with me from Australia, and which I might add had not seen the light of day since I arrived in Spain, and sallied forth to Cuatro Vientros for the final Mass of this World Youth Day celebration.

The part of my psyche that is priest, if I can separate that off for a second, had been looking forward to concelebrating this Papal Mass since I first found out that I would be accompanying the diocesan pilgrimage to Spain and to World Youth Day. Imagine my great disappointment to arrive at the appointed place well before the appointed time and to be told that that my accreditation as priest was invalid, and that I would have to present my ‘celebret’ (which I had left at the residence thinking I wouldn’t need it) and ‘re-register’ if I wanted to concelebrate. Since this was not possible, I decided to make my way to where the group was located so I could share the experience with them.

Imagine my further shock, disappointment and growing anger when I was denied entrance to the allocated seating area, even though I had the necessary registration hanging around my neck, because the area was “over-filled”. It would appear that this morning you didn’t need to have pre-registered for the event – or registered at all for that matter – in order to gain access to the main site. Why? Because no one, neither volunteer or official, was checking registration passes before letting people in. Anyone, absolutely anyone, could just wander on in. And they did, in their thousands. In a remarkable display of Spanish inefficiency those who had registered to attend the Papal Mass were turned away, usurped by people who had not attended any other function or event during the last week, but thought it okay to turn up today and participate in the ultimate act of this World Youth Day. And they were abetted in their endeavour by local organizers who seemed to just turn a blind eye. It has left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The Mass itself, which I managed to watch via webcast, was your typical fare for a Papal Mass. It was a cross between liturgy and theatre, largely because of the numbers present and the setting in which it took place. There was nothing particularly significant about the Mass that would require any further comment from me, particularly since I could only comment as an observer and not as a participant in any capacity.

And so with this entry I bring my daily coverage of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid to a close. I am sure that there will be further things to say by way of reflection, but for now, my daily coverage comes to an end. An event, a journey that promised so much as we embarked, has finished, at least for me, with a whimper rather than a bang.

The WYD Journey – Day 11

Today, the Saturday of the World Youth Day weekend, was a day of preparation in the main part that culminates in the all-night Vigil tonight in the place where tomorrow the Holy Father will preside at the World Youth Day Mass to conclude the formal celebrations. Many pilgrims are making their way to that place across the course of the day, prepared not only for sleeping out under the stars, but also for the heat that they will be exposed to for several hours.

Unfortunately, for reasons too personal to be expressed here, I made the reluctant decision to not go out today, and have instead spent my day in my own quiet day of preparation, and will keep the Vigil in the chapel in our residence at the same time as the Holy Father is leading other pilgrims in prayer at the venue. I am slightly disappointed that I wasn’t in a position to head out to the venue with other members of the group, but it was the right decision to make.

Tomorrow morning I will arise early to head out to the venue in time to concelebrate the Papal Mass, and so bring the formal part of our pilgrimage journey to an end. But more of that after the event…

The WYD Journey – Day 10

The tenth day of our pilgrimage coincided with the last day of the immediate preparations for the celebration of World Youth Day, which we will observe with the Holy Father this coming Saturday night/Sunday morning. There was an increasing level of anticipation and excitement in the city today as we draw closer and closer to the climax of this World Youth Day experience.

We chanced our arm at yet another venue for this morning’s third and final catechesis session, and we finally struck the jackpot. At a small, almost missable, church just a ten minute saunter around the corner, we finally found the right combination of those things we had been looking for: intimacy, good speaker, great atmosphere. Although the session was coordinated by American Catholics they were unlike the American Catholics we had encountered over the last two days, being a little more reserved and more balanced than the previous versions we had encountered.

Unfortunately I wasn’t present to hear the content of the catechesis session, as one of the other leaders and myself had a very important – and very secret – mission to attend to. All the reports of the content of the session from other members of the group however were effusively positive, and my only comment is that it was a shame that we had taken three days to get our selection of our catechesis location sorted. Oh well, these things happen when you’re on pilgrimage…and we were definitely pilgrims not tourists.

After the conclusion of the catechesis session and the Mass that followed, we all returned to our (very close) residence for lunch and whatever. My whatever eventually took the form of a siesta (yes, I am fully embracing the Spanish customs) and awoke, slightly late, to head to the Way of the Cross in towards the main WYD area of Madrid. The crowds were large again, as you might expect, and although our group had again staked out a good position, with a reasonable view of both the space for our station and the screens that would allow us to see the other stations in turn, we were again gazumped by latecomers (mainly from a North American country south of Canada and north of Mexico) who seemed to have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – or were very very selfish. I can’t decide which epithet applies, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. One could imagine at a World Youth Day event, people might be prepared to put the needs of others ahead of, or on par, with their own.

The Way of the Cross however was unlike that of Sydney three years ago. The various stations were not acted out but were rather represented by large wooden statues, carried or pulled by large groups of men. They were ancient, aged in the hundreds of years, and normally live all across Spain. They had been brought together in Madrid especially for tonight’s celebration of the Way of the Cross. But when combined with the large crowd tonight’s celebration left me a little disappointed – but I quickly recovered by grabbing a couple of very nice Flemish beers at a bar on the way back to the residences.

And with the conclusion of Day 10, we are preparing ourselves for the culmination of this World Youth Day…the all-night Vigil and the final Papal Mass.

The WYD Journey – Day 9

After yesterday’s experience of catechesis, we decided to go somewhere different today, and after much map searching (and reference to Google Maps) we found what we hoped would be a smaller and more intimate venue. The bonus was that it was also closer…which meant we got there in time to ensure ourselves good seating. Unfortunately, that was about the only good thing about the new venue.

Again, we had a very enthusiastic American nun as our MC/lead singer, and while she was certainly in a different category than the American nuns we encountered yesterday, there’s still something about the American evangelical form of Catholicism that doesn’t sit well with me. Unfortunately I can’t comment about anything she – or the Ugandan bishop who lead our catechesis input – said because I couldn’t hear them. The sound system in the venue was not working, and the natural acoustics didn’t lend itself to the venue being used without amplification. So tomorrow we’ll go searching for another venue that hopefully might allow us to gain some value from the one remaining catechesis session.

After escaping from the catechesis session this morning we made our way to the park at Retiro and took up a position that will allow us to see the Pope tonight as he begins his official welcome ceremony. We’re jealously guarding the position against other latecomers, making sure that we maintain our ability to see the Pope. If we don’t we might as well return to our residences now. It was a beautiful day to be sitting in the park, particularly sitting as we were under the shade of trees out of the direct sun. Now we wait, patiently, for the official welcome to His Holiness to take place.

And as we expected, we had to ‘fight’ to keep our premium spot for viewing the Pope’s official welcoming ceremony. We had sat in the same spot for close to eight hours, enjoying the atmosphere as it built up across the afternoon, yet the ‘latecomers’ seem to think that they can swoop in at the last moment, and attempt to stand in front of us with impunity. Well, we certainly had news for them. We managed to maintain our position, and even though we were crowded out by people in front and below us, we all managed to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father as he arrived. As far as I was concerned, the eight hours were well worth it.

I was reflecting as we travelled home though, and have to confess to be slightly perturbed by the general behaviour of the crowd (including myself) in the interval immediately before the Pope’s arrival, and during the visit. Common courtesy – and Christian charity – seemed to go out the window in an effort to see the Pope. It smacked of a personality cult, a “worshipping” of the Papacy, a misdirection of our affection away from Jesus, the Son of God, and towards, well, a man. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for the Papacy, and its current incumbent, but I profess a faith in Jesus Christ, not in a Pope. Perhaps we, as Catholics, need to remember where our priorities ought to lie.

The WYD Journey – Day 8

Today was the first day of World Youth Day proper, with the normal round of catechesis beginning together with the full range of cultural and youth events swinging into place. This is at the very heart of the World Youth Day programme, and the number of pilgrims arriving in Madrid has dramatically increased. Walking through the city now is radically different, with pilgrims from an increasing number of countries walking the streets.

We made a choice to return to the place where the Australian pilgrims gathered yesterday – primarily for the sake of comfort, since it had comfortable seats, was air conditioned, and had all the necessary amenities. It was also somewhere we knew how to get to after our excursion to the place yesterday. If only we knew then what we knew by the end of the session.

The catechesis session can be described in one word – ‘slick’. The centre was being coordinated by Americans, particularly the Sisters of Life and the Knights of Columbus, and it was a high end production, with an effusive nun as MC, and another Sister of Life giving the main presentation. It reminded me of an American produced infomercial, a well-crafted presentation intended to convince you of the message being conveyed, and to further convince you that the message being conveyed is the only version of that message, with any other being a pale imitation of the truth. The use of multimedia techniques, sloganistic presentations of Scripture texts, and a message that was skewed in one particular direction left me feeling cold, almost embarrassed to be counted as a Catholic if being Catholic means what was being conveyed in that message.

We eventually escaped before they transitioned to the celebration of Mass, and made our way to one of the parks where we could sit on the grass, eat our lunch, and unwind from the experience of the catechesis session. Since there were no planned activities that afternoon, our group of pilgrims went our separate ways, exploring the City of Madrid in our own way. I made my way to the shopping district of Sol, and was amazed at the definition of ‘shopping centre’. There was no Westfieldesque shopping mall. This was a district full of stores of various sizes, where you had to actually walk outside to move from shop to shop. Certainly the streets had plenty of shade covering, either trees or shade cloth, but you actually had to walk outside in fresh air… Radical right?

Anyway, I moved away from Sol eventually without purchase, largely because of the size of the crowds (not being one for crowds at the best of times), and went back to the residence. When I got there I indulged in that very Spanish custom of the afternoon siesta. It was quite refreshing, and I awoke ready to face the evening…which turned out to be a very relaxing and enjoyable evening.

It started with the evening meal, which then progressed to one of the local bars for a few glasses of sangria, some good company, and some great conversation. It was again, a typical Spanish evening, ‘wasting’ the evening in company and conversation well into the night while the sky darkened slowly. It would be easy to spend every evening doing the same…

Our day concluded with the celebration of Mass, a wonderful way to bring our first full day of World Youth Day week to an end. It was a quiet, relaxed affair, and the highlight for me was the discussion about the catechesis session that took place during the ‘homily’. There was a wonderful understanding of the complexities surrounding the catechesis presentation of this morning, and this understanding and the accompanying willingness to enter into discussion and dialogue. Methinks there’s hope for the Church going forward yet….despite (perhaps) the events of this morning’s catechesis.

My WYD Experience – The First Week

Okay, so I’m a week into the whole World Youth Day experience, and while I have been regularly writing about what I have seen and experienced, those entries are more about events and happenings, and not the more important (and possibly introspective) personal reflection on what I have seen and heard and experienced to date. This entry is my attempt to redress that imbalance.

As I mentioned in one of my very first entries of this journey, this pilgrimage to World Youth Day represents the first time I have left Australia. I have been reflecting on the significance of this over the past week, and there are still times when I wake up in the morning and can’t quite believe that I am not in Australia. For the last seven days I have been completely outside my comfort zone – away from all those familiar things, those things that keep me safe and in which I am secure, and which are (all but) totally absent from my Spanish experience.

I can imagine that had the occasion of my first overseas trip been in any other context other than a pilgrimage I might feel less secure than I do at present. And it’s not just the fact that I have a group of people with me, some of whom I know and others who I am getting to know, that makes a difference. Rather, I believe that it is because I am on a journey of faith, and faith requires trust, and trust not in my own abilities and strengths nor in those of other human beings, but trust in the providence of God, the God who has loved me into being, who loves me in each and every moment of my life, and who will love me no matter where I go or what I do. This is the God to whom I have come closer as a result of my experience of journeying in faith towards World Youth Day in Madrid.

My faith in God has also been nourished by seeing the faith of others expressed by both their willingness to journey or their faithful hospitality offered to others who have journeyed. The faith of the people of Bejar, a very simple, dignified, pious faith, was enough to make me feel almost infantile in the expression of my faith, so profound and expressive was it. But the most impressive part of their faith was the way in which they made time for it, giving it a place of prominence in their daily lives without becoming self-conscious about it. It was just natural, almost without second thought, that their faith in God should be expressed so. There is much there for me to learn and the true value of the gift the people of Bejar have entrusted to me will not be fully known for many years to come.

I think this is true of the whole WYD experience though. The true value won’t be known until long after I have returned to Australia, and to the familiar, safe and secure surroundings that wait for me there, although I suspect they won’t be quite as familiar, safe and secure as I once thought them to be. As with most things connected to matters spiritual, all these things lie in the lap of God, and my task – as always – is to attempt to come to a better understanding of them through God’s help to me.