MADRID, Spain — In fewer than 140 days, hundreds of thousands of youth from around the world will descend upon the capital of Spain to celebrate World Youth Day.
Pope Benedict XVI said last year that the event in one of Europe’s most prominent cities comes at a time when the continent badly needs a faith revival.
Madrid may just see such a revival, with 1.5 million Catholic youth expected to fill its streets, squares and churches.
As of March 8, a total of 287,280 participants had registered, with the largest contingents coming from France, Italy, Spain, the United States, Germany and Poland. More than 17,000 have already registered from the U.S.
The event will begin with “Days in the Diocese” Aug. 11-15 and will continue with Pope Benedict’s arrival Aug. 18, culminating Aug. 21 with a closing Mass at the Cuatro Vientos Airport, a former military airbase.
The theme for WYD Madrid is “Planted and Built Up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith.”
This will be the second time Spain has hosted a World Youth Day gathering. In 1989, more than 400,000 gathered in the ancient pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela.
Over WYD’s 26-year history, the event has attracted more than 13.5 million young people.
“Madrid is a huge Catholic draw,” said Steve Kerekes, president of Youth in Europe, a company that organizes religious pilgrimages. “Many people want to experience this event in that place. It will be larger because you’re closer to the Catholic populations of Europe.”
“Madrid is a city of 5 million with great infrastructure,” said Kerekes. “It’s a city that can handle a large volume of people. It’s going to be exciting.”
At present, large numbers of youth from California, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Lincoln, Neb., and St. Paul-Minneapolis have already signed up.
“I expect the total U.S. attendance will be between 20,000-25,000,” said Sister Eileen McCann, coordinator for Youth and Young Adult Ministry within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. “If it hits 25,000, it would be equal to WYD in Germany.”
For those unable to attend, some dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of Denver, are hosting local gatherings with live streaming of events.
“We have really been blessed in securing a site for U.S. offices, with an auditorium,” added Sister Eileen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. “On Aug. 17, we’ll be doing a vocations fair along with the Secretariat for Clergy and Consecrated Life.”
‘Days in the Diocese’
Another event in Madrid, which began as a tradition at WYD Sydney, is a gathering for all of the U.S. pilgrims on the morning of Aug. 20. That event includes a Mass with all of the U.S. and Canadian bishops who are attending. At present, 65 U.S. bishops have registered to attend.
An air-conditioned sports arena has been secured near El Retiro Park, where catechesis and youth festival events will take place for English-speaking youth.
During the week, El Retiro will host a Festival of Forgiveness, where hundreds of priests will have makeshift confessionals set up for the sacrament of reconciliation. All of Madrid’s churches will also be open for confession.
“We want to show that the sacrament of reconciliation is a joyous occasion, a beautiful thing,” said Bishop Cesar Franco, general coordinator for WYD Madrid. “[There] youth can receive forgiveness and the mercy of Christ.”
In the days leading up to World Youth Day, organizers expect an estimated 300,000 youth to participate in “Days in the Diocese,” an opportunity for young people to stay with host families and learn more about Spain and the Spanish people. Already, almost 151,000 youth from 137 countries have registered for the festival. Participants include youth from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Madagascar, Burkina Faso and South Africa. In Ciudad Real, a suburb south of Madrid, 260 young people from Haiti, a country that is still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake in January 2010, are being hosted free of charge.
“Days in the Diocese” began in Paris in 1997. It was designed not only for the pilgrims, but also as a way of encouraging youth in the host country to participate in WYD. Events include cultural activities, historical tours, celebrations and prayer and liturgy at Spain’s many shrines.
“It’s a great opportunity to prepare for WYD, while multiplying the impact of WYD all over Spain,” said Javier Igea, director of “Days in the Diocese.”
While the weeklong event is an encounter with Christ, it’s also an invitation by the Pope to the young people of the world. The Holy Father will arrive at the Barajas Airport at noon on Aug. 18, making his way via popemobile to the nunciature, and then on to a welcome ceremony with youth at the Plaza de Cibeles that evening.
While past World Youth Days have included a papal meeting and Mass with seminarians, WYD Madrid will also include a separate meeting with religious sisters on the morning of Aug. 19 at the Patio de los Reyes at the Monastery of El Escorial. A new event this year will include a meeting with 1,000 young college professors in the basilica on Aug. 19. That evening’s Stations of the Cross will take place on the Paseo de Recoletos, between Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Colon. It will feature 14 statues that will be loaned from different parts of Spain.
The next morning, the Pope will celebrate Mass with seminarians at the Cathedral of La Almudena. As youth are making their pilgrimage to the Cuatro Vientos Airport, the Pope will visit the Fundacion Instituto San Jose, a center for people with disabilities run by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. That evening, the customary overnight prayer vigil will be held at the airfield.
On Sunday morning, the final papal Mass will be held at Cuatro Vientos, followed by the Holy Father’s meeting with WYD volunteers at the IFEMA fairgrounds. The Pope’s official farewell ceremony will take place at Barajas Airport that evening.
“Now, at a time when Europe greatly needs to rediscover its Christian roots, our meeting will take place in Madrid,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his message for the 26th World Youth Day, issued Aug. 6, 2010. “I would like all young people — those who share our faith in Jesus Christ, but also those who are wavering or uncertain, or who do not believe in him — to share this experience, which can prove decisive for their lives. It is an experience of the Lord Jesus, risen and alive, and of his love for each of us.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.