I have been in Spain for two weeks helping to lead a group of 53 pilgrims from St. Mary’s Parish, the Catholic chaplaincy at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. I am not assigned there, but I am a friend of their head chaplain, Jesuit Father Will Prospero, who has been planning this trip for three years — ever since returning from World Youth Day in Sydney. On the eve of the trip, he found himself seriously ill and asked me to take over.
I am a veteran of the last four World Youth Days — Rome, Toronto, Cologne and Sydney, and so consider myself somewhat of an expert, and certainly a big supporter of these most amazing weeks, where the Catholic faith takes to the streets of a major world city and Christ is proclaimed in all his glory!
I have covered these wonderful weeks as a journalist in the past, and I am thrilled to have the chance to report for the Register.
Right now, my pilgrim group is spread out in seven smaller groups involved in evangelization, service, pilgrimages and fun in various Spanish cities. We started our trip in Avila to get to know better St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite saints from that ancient walled city an hour north of Madrid. From there, we traveled to the castile of Xavier, the home of the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier.
We imbibed his spirit, as we spent three days at the castle and in prayer at the places where he was raised and his vocation was first nurtured by his noble and yet very loving Catholic family. From there, we journeyed on to Loyola, the place where St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, was born. We joined a group of 3,000 other pilgrims from various Jesuit apostolates around the world for a weekend of prayer and fiestas, after which the 3,000 went off to proclaim Christ along the highways and in the towns of Spain. That is where my groups are now.
Our group, which hails mostly from Michigan, includes many young, single adults, but also traveling with us are a young married couple, two Nashville Dominican sisters, a diocesan priest, a doctor, a mom who is also a youth catechist at her home parish, and other lay leaders from various Catholic outposts.
We even have a young Protestant man traveling with us. He was last seen waving the papal flag at the closing Mass at Loyola, so his religious affiliation could be changing sometime soon.
Our group will arrive in Madrid on Monday. We will be staying at the Jesuit high school — Nuestro Senora del Recuerdo — sleeping on the floors of classrooms, eating in their cafeteria, and showering in their locker rooms.
Some first impressions on the eve of World Youth Day:
Most sites look about half-ready to greet the throngs of pilgrims. I am told everything will be ready in time, but that the mañana, mañana (tomorrow, tomorrow) spirit of Spain does not allow for too much advanced planning. Americans would be nervous to see cranes and scaffolding and piles of equipment in front of the papal stages just days before his arrival, but here it is considered the normal way of things.
There is a great spirit in the air, though. The parishes and churches seem the most prepared, with all kinds of welcome banners and signs, not to mention people outside welcoming early-arriving pilgrims and offering tours, information and warm welcomes. It’s not Rome, with a Catholic church on every corner, but pretty close, maybe every other corner. And they are beautiful and breathtaking and full of the Holy Spirit.
The people are in prayer and worship throughout the day and night in anticipation of this visit. Thousands of volunteers are vested in bright, fluorescent green and are all over the city with maps and smiles and information for the pilgrims.
There are some rumors of a strike next week by the public-transportation workers, but it seems more like a ploy to get a few more benefits in light of the impending arrival of half a million pilgrims, who will be given free passes for the buses and metro for the entire week. There are also the usual anti-Catholic, anti-God, anti-religion protesters, very few in number, who have demanded and been given a chance to march in protest before the Pope arrives. They seem rather pathetic and sad, but perhaps will be the ones most positively affected by the warmth and kindness of the visiting pilgrims.
There is another group lined up, though, to protect the Pope: Those are the patron saints of this year’s WYD, including Sts. Isidore, the patron of Madrid, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Loyola and Blessed Pope John Paul II, who inaugurated World Youth Day back in the early years of his papacy.
One of the most anticipated events for WYD will be the Way of the Cross on Aug. 19. Platforms that depict scenes from the Passion in life-sized images will be featured in the center of Madrid. The stations will be prayed there, and then the platforms, which require dozens of people to lift them, will be carried in procession throughout the city at the conclusion of the prayer.
One of the platforms — Jesus de Gran Poder (Most Powerful Jesus) — is being held in a side chapel at the Church of St. Isidore near the Madrid cathedral. It is a powerful, evocative image of Our Lord carrying his cross.
Madrid residents say they have never seen the city so crowded in August. At a time when most of the city dwellers take off for the beaches and mountains, it seems that the allure of seeing Pope Benedict in their fair city is worth staying in town for.
It is exciting to be here and know that we are about to spend a week with fellow Catholic pilgrims from around the world. As one person quoted in the local newspaper said, “The Pope is coming home … and he will be welcomed here with only love and joy.”
Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber is based in Chicago. He filed this report from Madrid, where he is covering World Youth Day for the Register.