The WYD Journey – Day 7

Well dear readers, when last we spoke I was still making my way towards Madrid from Navalmoral de la Mata on board a bus. You’ll be pleased to know that we (eventually) arrived at our Madrid residences a little after midnight. After a short briefing from the Harvest representative/translator (much of which I must admit to not remembering) and a hurried planning session over a meal, I eventually retired to my room just before 2am. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem here in Spain given their penchant for later risings, but our group had drawn the short straw of a 7:30am breakfast sitting. But thems are the breaks when you’re on pilgrimage.

Our first day in Madrid was a pleasant one despite the earlier than expected start. We had a brief team meeting, then a group meeting, before setting off to participate in the Australian Pilgrims Gathering. This was, thankfully, taking place in an air conditioned sports arena, so we were comfortable throughout the two hour event. There was a definite feeling on the streets and Metro as we made our way to the event, and as we passed each new group – wherever they were from – greetings were exchanged in a variety of ways, albeit always in the best of spirits, and with genuine warmth and affection – even to the stranger.

The crowd of Aussies (and I choose that word deliberately) waiting outside the sports stadium was impressive not in size – about 3,500 Australians are registered – but also in volume. There was much noise, often in the form of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi”, which gave some idea of the excitement that was sweeping through the national contingent. Once we were all inside and seated, it took some time for us to become settled enough for the event to begin, but that just goes to show how excited we are to be here.

The event itself was an interesting thing. It was a very powerful combination of music, conversation, input, and testimony, all superbly and seamlessly choreographed, that only served to heighten the excitement of the gathered Aussies for the World Youth Day experience that is just beginning. And although there were elements of ritual included in the event – prayers, gospel procession and proclamation, intercession and other ritual actions – I have to say that, with my liturgist’s hat on, I felt it wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. The event tried to be both liturgy and youth rally, and wasn’t completely successful at either. It may have been the applause after each element that tipped me off, but I left the arena on an emotional high, but with a feeling of disquiet bubbling away inside. But, that’s just my opinion…

Anyway, after the event was over, I attempted to make my way to the offices where I needed to obtain my accreditation as a priest participant in the World Youth Day events. Apart from getting slightly disoriented once (not lost thanks to the help of a friendly officer of the policia municipal de Madrid) I managed to successfully navigate the Madrid Metro system there and back, and am now all properly accredited for the week. Unfortunately, this didn’t allow for my planned siesta – but hey, I’m a pilgrim not a tourist, so it’s all good.

Our pilgrim group had another prayer session this afternoon just before our evening meal. Again this was a powerful and moving experience. Our time in Bejar has certainly contributed to a great feeling amongst the group, and these times of prayer and worship definitely help cement that feeling. Although they’re not my usual ‘cup of tea’, I find myself looking forward to these sessions, if only because I get to spend what I consider to be high quality time with this group of people with whom I am sharing this experience.

A misprint in our guide books and the resulting confusion about the starting time of the Opening Mass tonight (which I must say is so typically Spanish…and I love it!) saw the hurried consumption of dinner followed by hasty preparations for a departure in time for the start of the Mass. As you might imagine it was a grand affair, drawing on all the ritual and ceremony that the Catholic Church can muster. I don’t want to spoil the experience – there will be webcasts abounding – but nothing seen on a screen can fully capture the significance of the Church Universal, represented by its young people of every nation, tribe and tongue, gathered together to do that which the Church has been doing for over two thousand years, ever since the Lord said “Do this in memory of me”.

Tonight we did exactly that…

The WYD Journey – Day 6

Our last day in Bejar coincided with the Feast Day of the Assumption, a national feast day (and public holiday) here in Spain. It was in some fashion a perfect day on which to finish our Days in the Diocese experience in Bejar and the Diocese of Plasencia.

The day started easily with Morning Prayer in the last of Bejar’s churches, with our every affable host Don Miguel. This was followed by a nice slow perambulation to the Church of St Mary Major, where today’s (first) Mass was to be celebrated. The occasion was made all the more special because the Solemnity is also the patronal feast day of this particular church. It was a privilege to be part of the liturgical celebration of this particular solemnity, and the Mass was once again a mixture of Spanish, Korean, and English – with the added challenge of Latin for the Eucharistic Prayer.

This latest development, about which I wasn’t warned beforehand, had the potential to be very embarrassing for myself, given that as a concelebrant I would have to say part of the Eucharistic Prayer aloud – IN LATIN. I have to admit that my spoken Latin is rusty to the point of non- existence. But I apparently managed to bluff my way through, because I wasn’t taken outside the church and burnt as a heretic.

At the end of Mass both the Korean and Australian contingents were able to bid farewell to the people and parishioners of Bejar. Our Korean friends presented a statue of Mary (in the Korean style) to the parish, which went over very well given their personal and corporate devotion to Mary. Saying farewell on behalf of the diocesan contingent gave me the opportunity to say a very big “gracias” to those warm people who had made us feel so welcome, and who had welcomed us into their homes and hearts during our time with them. I apparently got my pronunciation of the few Spanish words I used correct enough to elicit applause and laughter, which is always a good way in which to say farewell.

After Mass there was the obligatory small servings of sangria and sweet biscuits which are the traditional food associated with the Assumption. After this, it was time to head off for our last lunch in Bejar, and then make our way to the park to await our bus to take us away from Bejar, and towards Navalmoral de la Mata, where our diocesan celebration of the Assumption and the pilgrims would take place.

What was surprising however was the emotion surrounding our farewell. Although we had only been in Bejar a very short time, there was genuine sadness at parting. There was much hugging and kissing, and there was even the occasional tear shed as we said farewell to these people who have become family through shared experience and the gift of hospitality. But it all came unstuck completely when they started singing – naturally and unashamedly singing farewell to new friends in a way that could never happen in Australia. It was powerful. It was profound. And I could feel my eyes starting to moist up. I must go back to visit again.

Our bus trip from Bejar to Navalmoral de la Mata was largely uneventful – until we actually got to Navalmoral de la Mata that is. It would appear that our bus driver hadn’t been told exactly where in the town he was supposed to take us. After a few aborted attempts, and several animated phone calls, we managed however to find the stadium, and were pleased to be reunited with our good friends from Spain, Austria and South Korea, and to meet new friends from Honduras, Uganda, Martinique, Mexico, Poland, American Samoa, Canada, Germany and many other places.

The atmosphere was positively electric. There was much music, much dancing, and much celebrating the one thing that all these people from all around the world had in common – Faith, and Faith as the Catholic Church proclaims it. It’s occasions such as this that reaffirm one’s faith, and generates a degree of excitement in the public profession of faith that is not achievable except during occasions such as this. While there are many national flags on display, that is not what gathers us here. What gathers us here, and into the coming days, is something far more intangible than national boundaries …and something far more precious! Thankfully the event tonight was not Mass, but rather something approach a ‘youth rally’ with an overtly Catholic Christian theme.

Eventually we boarded our bus that will be taking us to Madrid, the ultimate destination of our journey. As I write this entry we are still at least an hour from what will become our residence for the next week, and our experience of World Youth Day. But there’ll be more about that in tomorrow’s edition of this journey.

The WYD Journey – Day 5

Today was a very relaxed day. There was little in the way of scheduled events, and there was much time given over to time spent with our host families.

After Morning Prayer at the third parish church, there was a couple of hours of free time before Mass. I took the opportunity to sit in the main park with a cold drink, and a good book, although it was hard not to notice the goings on around me. The sight that struck me most was the way in which the local people enjoyed the open spaces. Old men, old ladies, families of multiple generations were all out enjoying the surroundings, the sun and the fresh air. From what I can gather this is the normal Sunday activity, and there is much to commend it. Spending time, not money, enjoying the company of friends and family, building relationships…and not being ashamed of it. Perhaps this is something to be encouraged in our own communities.

Mass today for the pilgrim group was in the Church of Maria Monte, and was again celebrated in a mix of languages – Spanish, Korean and English. The Mass was alas only for the pilgrim group, and there were very few locals present, apart from volunteers and host families. Upon reflection this has been the norm during our days here in Bejar, and I wonder what, if any, significance our presence will have to the locals once we leave. Or will some of the local parishioners wonder if we’ve been here at all.

The nature of pilgrimage – particularly World Youth Day pilgrimages – is to experience something of the local church to which we go. The hospitality of the people of Bejar has been faultless, but I wonder how our coming has been explained and prepared for – and how it will be viewed once we leave Bejar tomorrow. The answer to these questions may never be known.

This afternoon was given over to “free time”, and while many of our group took the opportunity to go swimming or exploring with their host families, I took the opportunity to indulge in that very Spanish custom of a siesta. It was truly wonderful, and I’m not sure how I’ll cope once I get back to Australia. I may just have to adopt the custom in its entirety.

Tonight we shared a lovely seafood meal with our host, Elena, and afterwards presented her with some gifts. She was genuinely taken aback, but her generosity deserved nothing less. We were supposed to go to a vigil liturgy, but – for the first time – the language difficulties got the better of us all, and we ended up strolling through the town before returning home to retire for the evening. These things were bound to happen. That they hadn’t happened before this is a testament of God’s providence more than good management.

Tomorrow is our last day in Bejar, with only a few activities in the morning. We leave after lunch to a diocesan celebration, and then on to Madrid.

The WYD Journey – Day 4

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…

The WYD Journey – Day 3

Sleep is a wonderful thing, and there was plenty to be had last night. Nine hours, albeit interrupted several times, when added to the couple of hours I had yesterday afternoon during siesta time has seen me awake refreshed and ready to face the day. Little did I know…

Breakfast was an interesting experience, consisting of coffee and warm milk to which should be added your preferred cereal choice. Admittedly, we didn’t quite get that right where I was hosted, but we’ll know better for tomorrow. Being fortified with coffee and cereal makes for an interesting start to the day. The communication problems with our host, Elena, provide for some interesting moments, particularly at the meal table. But we keep reminding ourselves that we are indeed pilgrims and not tourists.

After breakfast we gathered in the Church of El Salvador for morning prayer. This was again an interesting experience, particular since our prayer was in both Spanish and English. The universal nature of the Church becomes very real in moments like this: many people, from many places, using different languages, yet the prayer and worship of God is the same. In reflecting later I have come to believe that it is all too easy to become complacent, particularly in the face of adversity, about the nature of Church. But this morning, in that moment when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in at least three different languages by people of all ages, I was reminded that faith, and the Church that is the People of Faith, is very much alive and has much still to offer to the world.

The surprise during morning prayer was the very unexpected invitation to vest and be seated in the sanctuary with the two priests of this particular parish, which was subsequently surpassed by the invitation to “say a few words”, that is, to offer a mini-homily after the Parish Priest. Never one who likes things to happen on the fly, I was slightly taken aback, and hope that I managed to say something vaguely sensible.

After Morning Prayer we embarked on a walking tour of the township of Bejar, which has been populated since the 400s. There is still evidence of the various groups of people who have lived here, conquered the town and surrounding area again and again. The residents here, which total about 15,000 are very friendly and go out of their way to say “hola” as we pass by (apart from the one cranky driver who seemed to take exception to the way in which we used the pedestrian crossing he was rapidly approaching).

We shared a common lunch with the other pilgrims resident in Bejar, and enjoyed their company – particularly the small contingent from Austria (the Archdiocese of Vienna). After lunch we’re (unexpectedly) destined for a group meeting, a visit to an aged care facility, and eventually Mass. Not sure when the siesta is going to be squeezed in, but I hope it is….

Well the siesta didn’t eventuate, and instead we spent a very powerful time in prayer together, and for the first time since we embarked on this journey a few days ago I felt we have bonded together as more than a disparate group of travellers. We have become a company of pilgrims. This, while taking it’s time to come, was worth waiting for – it is after all what we purport to be. Even the rain that came pouring down as we attempted to wander around Bejar this afternoon has appeared to dampen our new found enthusiasm for being clearly, and very recognizably, on a pilgrimage.

The day culminated with the celebration of Mass. There’s nothing unusual about that per se, but this Mass was unlike any I had experienced since the experience of Days in the Diocese before World Youth Day 2008. Tonight, as then, Mass was a polyglot affair, with at least four languages were used. But unlike 2008, I was not the host, the local. No, tonight I was the hosted, the stranger, and it provided a new perspective on so many things. Not only am I part of something bigger than the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, but I am also part of something that is not rapidly becoming an anachronism, but something that is alive, and which has a very real and powerful potential as it wanders into the future.

One of the difficult parts of the journey to date – and I mention not in any sense of criticism – has been the very fluid concept of time that the Spanish seem to have. I’m not sure if it has something to do with the heat of summer, or is just a general part of Spanish life, but it takes a bit of getting used to. But there’s something important to the reality: people matter more than a clock, and it would seem that the Spanish are prepared to place people, relationships and good company above slavery to a clock. There is something valuable to be learnt in that approach to life…and one that requires further reflection.

The WYD Journey – Day 2

Our second day of our journey to Madrid for World Youth Day started aboard our Thai Airways 747-400 flying somewhere over Eastern Europe…or possibly the Middle East…I can’t be sure!

After some very good sleep, and a nice breakfast, we landed in Madrid at about 8:15am local time, and made our way through both border control and customs. Not being the experienced traveller, I’m not sure whether our expeditious transit through both controls is the norm…or more a sign of Divine favour for this group of pilgrims from the Antipodes.

Anyway…as we walked through the arrivals gate we were enthusiastically met by our other group leaders, Sue & Brian, who had travelled over a few days before the main group. They shepherded us onto our bus for the journey towards Plasencia, and eventually our final destination of Bejar, where we will celebrate our Days in the Diocese experience. There were a lot of groups moving through the airport at Madrid this morning, all of them very obviously there to participate in World Youth Day. It’s hard not to get swept along with the very palpable feeling of excitement and anticipation that was present in the baggage claim area this morning.

We spent the time on our bus catching up with the latest developments for our pilgrimage experience, and beginning the more spiritual part of our journey. We broke out the guitar, and sang some of the songs from the specially prepared booklet, and our voices weren’t too bad considering we’d basically been traveling for twenty four hours, although our rendition of “I Still Call Australia Home”, meant to be our contribution to the cultural event in Bejar, definitely needs some more work!

We arrived in Bejar just in time for the famous Spanish siesta, something that I think I could get used to very quickly. Having been distributed to our various host families for the next few days, the only thing I, and my two fellow pilgrims, can even begin to fathom is a shower….and then some sleep. There is a more formal welcome ceremony tonight (hopefully after the heat has dissipated a little), and then there will be more adventures/activities over coming days.

I’ve just returned home after the welcoming ceremony, and we, along with the other pilgrims from around the world have been made to feel particularly welcome by all those involved in planning and organizing this Days In The Diocese experience, both church and secular. Walking back from that event in the twilight with a goodly number of people gracing the streets of this ancient town took me by surprise when I suddenly discovered it was past 10pm.

I was surprised not only by the beauty that surrounded me, but also by the fact that I was feeling remarkably good given the time! Tired certainly; but feeling very good!

And now to a light dinner, and then bed in order to be ready for day three of our journey.

The WYD Journey – Day 1

As I compose this entry we are aboard our Thai Airways 747-400 aircraft about three hours from our arrival into Madrid. So much has happened in the time since we departed Sydney some twenty six hours later…let me fill you in.

After some initial stress caused by some later arriving pilgrims (you guys know who you are, and I still don’t accept your reasoning…but you’ll keep!) the check-in, border clearance, and boarding of our first aircraft went very smoothly. What followed was a nine and a half hour journey to our transit point of Bangkok. I spent much of the time watching movies and some comedy shows on my individual entertainment screen, but was also treated to some wonderful meals.

We actually arrived early into Bangkok and so we had a little over two hours to wander on the departure side of border control. After another momentary scare with a possible lost pilgrim, we managed to meet up and then go our separate ways for our transit time, with many of us taking the opportunity to wander the sprawling terminal building, which was very much alive late on a Wednesday night (to my surprise). It was a remarkable building architecturally, completely unlike Sydney’s more functional design. Our time in Bangkok Airport also gave me the chance to grapple with the complexity of the Thai Baht…another first for me!

Our boarding of our second aircraft – the one in which I am currently seated, surrounded by fellow pilgrims from across Australia (and beyond) – was slightly delayed, but the spirit among the pilgrims gathered in the departure lounge was still upbeat…although I won’t speak for the “ordinary” travellers who were exposed to our upbeat and joyful exuberance.

The second leg of our flight is the longer twelve hour stretch, and we have been racing the sun as we head westerly around the globe. No sooner had the undercarriage found its way back into the fuselage then we were once again served up a very delicious meal. The surprise came at the end of the meal though – after a very quick clearing of trays, the cabin lights were dimmed and the inflight entertainment was turned off. I think the cabin crew may have been trying to tell us something.

I managed to achieve a good amount of sleep during this second leg of our journey, and am currently awaiting – quite eagerly – the serving of breakfast in a short while. By the time breakfast is eaten, and the trays cleared away we should be approaching our arrival in Madrid.

But that’s a story for my next entry!