'The Most Incredible 6 Days of My Life'

Many priests and religious of the Legionaries of Christ, and thousands of members and friends of the Legion's apostolate movement, Regnum Christi, were among the more than 1 million participants at Pope Benedict's World Youth Day in Cologne.

Regnum Christi members helped out in various ways: the Vocation.com coffeehouse near the Cathedral offered a number of musical performances, with all the performers urging their young audience to join in Eucharistic Adoration at the Vocation.com chapel and to go to confession.

Legionary priests heard confessions at the coffeehouse and joined other religious and diocesan priests at numerous sites throughout Cologne. Regnum Christi members also pitched in when needed elsewhere, including twice responding to emergency requests for help in distributing food to the massive crowd.

Father George Elsbett, born in London, raised in Germany, Canada and the United States, and now serving in Vienna, Austria, was among some 40 Legionary priests and religious who helped to serve the multitudes at World Youth Day. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Robert Francis.

How would you characterize the World Youth Day experience?

The most incredible six days of my life. To hear more than 1 million young Catholics shouting, “Benedetto, Benedetto!” and to see them falling on their knees during the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament at Mass. They were walking, singing, praying — interminable lines of youth from every possible corner of the world. There were 1,500 Catholic kids from Syria. Several kilometers of the autobahn were turned into a parking lot for buses.

Did World Youth Day have an impact on the people of Cologne who were hosting it?

Clearly, yes. The policemen were very strict on Tuesday morning, the first day in Cologne, when already 300,000 kids were in the city. But by the afternoon, the same police were sitting in a corner drinking a beer and greeting us with, “Hi, Father,” as they realized they would have almost nothing to do outside the massive events. The police and armed forces were dumbfounded, so were the journalists. They had no idea such a crowd of young people could be so well behaved.

We saw it too at the Senats Hotel where we had the Vocation.com coffeehouse. More than 17,000 youth visited the coffeehouse [more than 5,000 in one day alone]. We also received many priests and religious, who were invited to give their testimony or to offer information materials about their seminaries and religious communities. There were constant confessions, Eucharistic Adoration, Masses, witness talks, and music. We even saw a turnaround in the hotel staff: conversions, conversions, conversions!!!

Some groups tried to promote a secular agenda, passing out condoms and such things. How did the attendees react?

There had been plans to hand out as many as 1 million condoms by public agencies and non-governmental organizations. In modern, secular Germany, they provide this kind of “support” any time more than 100 young people are gathered for an event because they think it's “impossible that they keep clean.”

But the World Youth Day kids were throwing the condoms into garbage cans in front of journalists. I also know a 20-year-old man who teamed up with other lay people to produce a counter-poster against the “free sex” campaign launched by “Condoms4Life,” an affiliate of “Catholics for a Free Choice.” They printed posters showing a bride with bridegroom, and used sentences like, “Abstinence works” or “Free Catholics make a REAL choice.” And they did it all within 24 hours.

How busy were you with your priestly duties?

After the vigil with the Holy Father on Saturday, the adoration tent on Marienfeld — which could hold thousands — was totally overflowing. I started hearing confessions at 11 p.m. that evening and finished on Sunday at 4 p.m., and I wasn't the only one who had to do an extra shift, with only a short pause for breakfast and lauds.

It was flabbergastingly incredible. About 2,000 Regnum Christi members were also busy promoting confessions among other participants. God bless the lady who came by and distributed coffee to the priests confessing — at 3:00 in the morning.

Already on Thursday, I had made the “mistake” of doing my Eucharistic hour at midnight in the Cathedral after working in the Vocation.com coffeehouse. Even at midnight, the Cathedral was packed with kids, and I got swamped for confession. Tears come to my eyes just thinking about it.

It seems like the weather is almost always part of the adventure at World Youth Day, whether it's extreme heat or pouring rain. Was that the case this year?

The weather forecast for Saturday was thunderstorms and hail. All Bavaria was under water; all around Cologne it rained and poured.

But over the World Youth Day area there we felt hardly a drop of rain, and during hours even the clouds disappeared. At least during the day, it was nicely warm. The media spoke of the Pope's “weather angel.”

Two days after the event, I was on my way to serve as chaplain for a summer camp in Salzburg, Austria, but just a few hours away from Cologne I couldn't cross the highway bridge at Augsburg because of too much water from all the rain during the weekend.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

There are so many great stories, like the 60 Brazilian kids from a group that normally sends only three or four to World Youth Day. They explained, “We wanted to show that it's not about John Paul II or Benedict, it's about the Pope and about Jesus. That's what we wanted to show the Holy Father, that is why we came.”

I hope you all had the chance to read the speeches of the Pope [if not, check out vatican.va or zenit.org]. They were constantly interrupted by the clapping and the chanting of the young people, and they are well worth a profound meditation.