What was World Youth Day really about?


Sunrise over pilgrims at Cuatro Vientos, the site for the WYD Vigil and closing mass.

In the weeks since the official end of WYD, I have done my best to keep up with as much WYD information that I could find - everything from the translations of all that Pope Benedict said at WYD, to whatever (little) coverage main stream media gave the gathering of an estimated 1.5 million+ Catholics.

One of the most interesting pieces I read was an article from the Guardian entitled “Spain's World Youth Day has little to do with Catholicism.” It was interesting because the author is utterly wrong. As someone who was there on the streets with thousands and thousands of other youthful Catholics, I must simply disagree. World Youth Day was all about Catholicism.

Now, many on the outside looking in, like the author I mentioned, might want to make their own conclusions about what WYD was about. Are they wrong? Yes. But, in many ways its hard to blame them. They are bewildered. They have no clue why these folks wearing orange backpacks were so happy. They have no clue why millions of folks care about what some 84 year old man has to say. We know where our joy comes from, but others simply cannot even begin to fathom that in our secular society there would be masses of young people excited about their faith.

WYD Pilgrims on their way.
Allow me to share a story. It was the Saturday of the Vigil with the Holy Father. Our group of pilgrims decided to take the two hour pilgrimage walk to Cuatro Vientos, the vigil site. Carrying with us our provisions to spend the night, we soon discovered that our two hour walk was not going to take two hours – closer to five. It also happened to be 104 degrees Fahrenheit – the hottest day for World Youth Day. As we journeyed toward Cuatro Vientos, we encountered other groups of pilgrims taking breaks, some even suffering from heat exhaustion. After five hours of trekking through hills, cautiously crossing suspect bridges, baking in the sun, and inhaling Madrid dust, we arrived at Cuatro Vientos. The gates were locked.

The gates were locked.

The gates were no longer open.

Moses and the promised land.

We weren't the only ones. I would say a majority of the people who were locked out actually had passes for sections inside. After finding a place in the dirt to settle down and rest our feet – thankfully near a video screen – we prepared for the arrival of the Holy Father. Unfortunately Pope Benedict would not be the only arrival that evening. Soon storm clouds rested overhead, and lightning danced in the distance. Then it fell: the first rain drop. Shortly after, the strong winds came. The Holy Father's zuchetto flew off and pilgrims were scrambling to protect themselves and their gear from the storm. The storm was in full effect, and the Holy Father paused.

And then the most beautiful thing happened.

You can see the storm clouds starting to form over the pilgrims.
All around, groups of pilgrims began to chant. Soon other groups of pilgrims began to sing and dance. Here in the middle of this storm, hundreds of thousands of Catholics exploded with joy. Chants of “Benedetto” erupted, and drums were banged. Pilgrims haphazardly surrendered their umbrellas and entered into a moving celebration. In the eyes of the world, these people had no reason to be happy – they had been walking all day in the heat, now they were getting soaked, they had to sleep outdoors in the mud, and many of them had been locked out of an event that they had spent loads of money on and traveled great distances for – yet, still they were.

Jesus Christ, that's where the joy came from.

Being Catholic – being universally a member of His body – that's where the joy came from.

And the Holy Father would share with us ways to more deeply encounter Jesus Christ, and maybe more importantly, he knelt with us in prayer before this same Jesus Christ.

They may not understand why we were so joyful - and that is our mission to share it - but anyone who tries to tell you that WYD “had little to do with Catholicism” is grossly mistaken, because honestly, it is hard to get more Catholic than 1.5 million+ people in complete silence kneeling in adoration of Our Lord.

Simply Beautiful.