World Youth Day Madrid’s executive director, Yago de la Cierva, has been busily preparing for the Aug. 16-21 festival of Catholic faith.

As the chief organizer, de la Cierva explained, from Rome on June 28, how pilgrims could best prepare for WYD, the reasons for holding the event in Madrid, the Pope’s decision to hear confessions, and how Spain’s secularist government is handling the event.

How have the preparations gone for World Youth Day?
Everything is on schedule, and the preparations are going quite well, both because of the large number of volunteers working on this, but also because of the collaboration from public administration and civil society — sponsors, companies, individuals — and the fact that both the government, the mayor and the region are cooperating with a really great spirit of collaboration. So, this is very good.

Is this a surprise, given the secularist nature of the government?

I think this goes beyond a religious event, and the government is well aware of that. It means that Spain and Madrid will be at the center of the media coverage during that week. It’s in the best interest of everybody — especially now with the economic crisis and turbulence — that Spain is shown to be able to work and to organize a big event.

So, they see this as an opportunity?

It is an opportunity. We are under difficult economic circumstances, which means that their collaboration is less in an economic sense, [but] the spirit is quite good. They are providing everything they usually provide for big events of this kind.

What advice would you give to pilgrims attending the event?
They have to be prepared in two senses: The first is the spiritual sense — the spiritual preparation, so that those who are coming will meet many people coming from all over the world, and they will experience the universality of the Church.

Our goal is to help them have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, which means that the better prepared they arrive, the more fruitful the meeting will be for them. So I would strongly recommend they go to the sacraments, because that’s the best way to encounter Jesus Christ — in the Eucharist and also confession. So, that’s one way to get prepared.

The second way, I would say, depends on where you come from. But if you come from a country with little or moderate sunshine, please bring sunblock and drink a lot of water. It’s going to be hot. On the one hand, Madrid is not as humid as Rome, because we’re [nearly a half mile] high, but that means the heat is dry. This means you have to drink a lot of water and bring with you the right clothes etc.

You spoke about the importance of the sacraments — many have found it of interest that the Pope will hear confessions for the first time on World Youth Day.

Absolutely — and the interesting point is that when he was told that the organizing committee wanted him to hear confessions, the person who is in charge of the Pope’s trips here told him: “We have decided, if you want, you can hear a few confessions.”

The Pope’s reaction was: “How many?” Because of time constraints, they said maybe two, three or four, and the Pope’s reaction was: “Only that?!” I think it will show also how important it is that many young people discover and rediscover the value and importance of confession and frequent confession in Christian life. So I think that’s a good way of putting this in front of many eyes.

And the Holy Father will also have lunch with young people?

Yes, that’s a normal thing for World Youth Day. Actually, what was interesting was that we, the organizing committee, decided not to take an important role in deciding who would have this meal with the Pope. We decided to put the names of international volunteers in a hat, and a neutral hand pulled them out. Twelve have been chosen — two from each continent plus two from Spain.

One of those chosen from Spain is a girl not from Madrid, and the Madrid one is a man with disabilities.

How many pilgrims are expected?

Our calculations have been made this way: We know how many people have been registered so far, which is more or less 410,000 people plus volunteers, bishops etc. So we’re around 450,000 people. And we know according to the ratios of other World Youth Days that people attending the vigil and final Mass are three times more than that.

But we don’t have that information; so far, we’re just saying registered people [totals] 450,000. What happens afterwards, I have no idea. We have to be prepared to have at that final Mass a million and a half.

As this is the third time Benedict XVI has been to Spain, do you think he’s perhaps giving a sign?

It’s a sign — a sign of how much the Pope loves Spaniards! I think there are two reasons for this: Firstly, that Spain is suffering a very intense and fast secularization process; the Church is concerned about that and wants to do something. The Pope is the first person to do something. And the second is that the Pope sometimes goes wherever he is invited. I don’t think there are many dioceses in the world willing to undergo this process, because it takes a lot of time, effort and resources to organize this, so it’s not for everyone.

Cardinal Ruoco was also really insisting to have this World Youth Day in Madrid because he organized the second one in 1989, in Santiago de Compostela, when he was archbishop there, and he saw great fruits. So this is his second World Youth Day, and he thought it was worthwhile.

What are your own expectations? What do you think will be the highlights for you?

I think, from a television point of view, it will be the welcome of the Pope and the Stations of the Cross, and then if the goal is to make possible a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, we will never know what happened.

We will see in the future how many people came to the Church for the first time or have a religious commitment, but that will be really difficult to evaluate — so, many of the most important things of World Youth Day will not be under the eye of the camera.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.