Thoughts of Madrid as we look to Rio

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UPDATE: FIND VISION at WYD in Rio on the Vocation Veranda at the English Speaking Pavillion (Vivo Rio) in Rio's Centro district.

CHRISTIANITY has a rich history of pilgrims making their way to the Holy Land, Rome, and the shrines and birthplaces of saints as a way for people of faith to reflect on their own spiritual journey and connect with the life and work of Jesus and his followers throughout the centuries.

In 2011, I traveled as a chaperone with a group of 15 teenaged students to Madrid for World Youth Day. Although our little group didn't start out with pilgramage in mind as we made our way from California to Rome to Madrid, the journey proved to be a true spiritual pilgrimage filled with prayer, inspiration, and lasting connections with people and holy places.

In Rome we experienced the sights and smells of Italian culture and cuisine during our cobblestoned walking tours of the Trevi Fountain, Coliseum, Pantheon and piazzas, and, of course, the Vatican. Father Tim Klosterman celebrated Mass for us in one of the small chapels housed under St. Peter’s Basilica before our tour of the Vatican museum, the awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel--where the new Pope Francis was elected--and St. Peter’s Square. After Rome we traveled to Milan and then took an overnight train to Barcelona.

The opening ceremony of World Youth Day 2011 
in Puerta de Alcalá, Madrid.

In Barcelona, we went to Mass at Santa Monica Church (same name as our parish and school back home!), saw first-hand the architectural genius of Gaudi, and viewed several of Picasso’s works before touring (for our soccer fans) the Barcelona Football Club’s stadium. We then headed to Madrid, the Spanish capital, via Zaragoza, where we walked through the main plaza to the great Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.

Our arrival in Madrid marked the real fruition of our sense of pilgrimage. We now sacrificed the comfort of privileged tourist life for the energy and crush of 2 million-plus young Catholic pilgrims jamming the streets and Metro to attend the World Youth Day gatherings held around the city. Prayer, patience, and almsgiving became a daily practice.

We also enthusiastically embraced our fellow pilgrims from across the globe and tried to share a taste of where we came from by trading pins, bracelets, ribbons, and country flags, and signing t-shirts and backpacks. We were filled with excitement and awe as we realized that they were not alone in our faith, but part of a massive worldwide community of believers.

The World Youth Day 2011 logo was on display throughout Madrid.
The World Youth Day 2011 logo was on display throughout Madrid.

The culminating event of our World Youth Day pilgrimage was the Vigil at the Cuatro Vientos Airfield, where we waited to for the Pople to celebrate the final WYD Mass.

During the several-mile walk to the airfield, we endured scorching temperatures of 113 degrees Fahrenheit with no shade for relief. Although the Madrid Fire Brigade attempted to provide
some relief during the day with occasional fire hose showers, we were challenged to stay hydrated and calm. As the sun was setting and the Vigil Mass began, the wind picked up rapidly and carried a parade of drizzling clouds over us. We anchored our sheets and backpacks and huddled closer, and the Holy Father huddled closer to his microphone as well. Student travel Lizzy Christian remembers, “I was so highly privileged to actually see the pope, despite the fact that he appeared only about an inch tall. As he was speaking, I kept seeing large flashes of lightning, and then it started raining. The wind blew so loudly into the pope's microphone that he had to stop speaking for a minute.”

WYD 2011 pilgrims witnessing the calm before the storm at Cuatro Vientos Airfield.
  WYD 2011 pilgrims witness the calm before the storm  at the Vigil at Cuatro Vientos Airfield.

Chants of "Benedicto" roared above the sound of the wind gusting over the tents housing the Blessed Sacrament, and the presence of God was palpable. When the Vigil came to a close, so did the rain and wind, and the stars appeared shining bright again as we laid our heads down to rest. We awoke with a renewed sense of  blessing and the desire to share our good will to others as we made our way back home.

“World Youth Day made me realize people are all the same. I loved talking to different people from different countries and learning the similarities we share,” says student traveler Sidney Dorris.

Pilgrim backpacks display the WYD 2011 logo.
Pilgrim backpacks display the WYD 2011 logo.

“World Youth Day was a great experience that allowed me to combine my love for traveling with a sense of community that I derived from seeing so many young Catholics come together to celebrate their faith. While we were all of the same faith, we came from different cultures and countries. World Youth Day sparked my interest to go to Kenya on the annual church trip and continues to inspire me to connect with young people around me,” Zachary Sczudlo, another student in our group, says of his experience. 

Like each generation of Christians before us, our little group discovered the abundant spiritual benefits of making a pilgrimage to a sacred place: We left with our faith deepened and our Christian resolve strengthened. Most of all, we left transformed by love, which is the ultimate goal of our journey with Christ.

Epilogue: The loudest roars of “Alleluia” during the WYD closing gatherings came from the Brazilian pilgrims in the crowd as the pope announced that the host city of the 2013 World Youth Day would be Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Please make plans to attend. It is a guaranteed life-changing event.

Siobhán O’Neill

Siobhán O’Neill is a freelance writer and VISION contributor based in Chicago and a former Catholic high school educator and campus minister.




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