St. Mary Pilgrims at World Youth Day in Spain


A reflection on the World Youth Day – Madrid Spain – 2011

By Father Brian McGrath

Pastor,  St. Mary Parish, Westfield


I woke early this morning (11 a.m. Spanish time, 5 a.m. EST) but that was good.  It gave me time to clear my desk (a box of mail and various notes), weed out my email (from the 187 messages waiting when I turned
it on, to the 84 that remain to be answered sometime today), sort the various suitcases we brought back (one was full of extra WYD backpacks that we will ship down to the COTY mission – Haitian Plunge), get some
breakfast and start two loads of laundry.

The mud stains from sleeping at Quartro Vientos and the sweat stains on my black clerics tell such a story.  Most of the trip we had temperatures that topped 100 degrees.  The day we walked to the Vigil
(along with nearly a million other pilgrims) the thermometer on my clock topped at 137 in the sun and 105 in the shade (we ended up taking it out of the sun because the plastic started to melt).  Every stitch
of clothing I brought home went to the washing machine. 

Crowds at World Youth Day

But I am way ahead of myself.
Zaragoza:  Our trip started with a day journey from Barcelona Airport to Zaragoza. On the way we stopped at Montserrat.  A pilgrimage point for many hundreds of years, it was a fitting way to begin our
pilgrimage.  In the bright sun we walked the streets of this mountain monastery.  The highlight for me was waiting an hour to kiss the virgin above the high altar.  Being with our youth I began to see the yearning
and hopes they had brought.  Together we venerated our Mother, the patroness of our journey.  The day before I was celebrating Mass at St. Mary’s and there I was kissing our Lady in Spain.  On the way out of
the Church I lit a candle for our people back home.  There were some special intentions for someone who had suffered a heart episode but I tried to lift everyone up.  My attentions would be focused on the
youth, so I wanted to hand friends, family and parishioners over to Mary.

In Zaragoza itself most of our youth were hosted by families.  It was a mix of great families and some who did not realize that we were on a pilgrimage.  Nonetheless we spent the days visiting the shrines (Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica, or the Pilar for short. It contains the pillar Mary left to St. James in 40 AD … yes that is while she was alive … in an apparition to him as he evangelized the Spanish Peninsula; La Seo is the Bishop’s Cathedral and a marvel of art and architecture), joining in the festivities, celebrating Mass and seeing
the city.  Zaragoza was founded by Caesar Augustus (it was originally called Caesaraugusta and over the  years that has morphed into Zaragoza. … say it with the Castillian lisp and you will understand) in 25 BC on the banks of the largest river in Spain (the Ebro).  It is an amazing mix of Roman, Muslim, Jewish, Renaissance and Spanish influences.

Pilar Basilica

There were over 3,000 youth from Italy, Spain, the US, Canada, Russia and many more countries.  The streets became a festival of encounters and singing and joy.  One wonderful memory I have is the youth of
Zaragoza themselves. The youth there were so excited to be with us.Even in Madrid I continued to get texts from those we met in Zaragoza.

St. Mary's pilgrims cool off in Spain

Madrid:  After a wonderful Mass with the Archbishop of Zaragoza we were on our bus bound for Madrid.  I should have known we were in for a physically difficult time when we tried to turn on the AC in the bus
(it was nearly 100 degrees inside as we were driving). The problem was that the bus driver had been keeping his window open as we drove across the desert plateau towards Madrid, but even when we shut it there was
no AC strong enough for the Spanish heat.  Another foreshadowing was our welcome to the school where we were staying … the address we had was the front of the school, but no one was there to receive us …
after much searching we ended up on the other side.  The volunteers at the school were great.  They gave of themselves to make our stay as best as it could be (sleeping on classroom floors, taking cold showers
in our bathing suits, sharing small bathrooms with the other several hundred pilgrims from France, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Michigan and Canada.) Our males shared the room with 6 youth and chaperones.
Vancouver … I didn’t wear my Bruins shirt out of Christian charity).

Local pilgrims smiling through the heat

The days were filled with Catechesis (the best was Archbishop Timothy Dolan from New York) and youth festivals. Imagine walking through a park the size of Central Park in New York City with thousands upon thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the world. It’s a festival just to be part of the moment. There were concerts  and we encountered Tony Melendez at a church and he invited us to a concert not even listed on the schedule … along with 12,000 others. The night was amazing!

This was followed by the  opening Mass with the Cardinal of Madrid, the Papal welcome on Thursday and the Stations of the Cross on Friday.  It was the Stations that proved to be a special moment of grace.

We split the group that day.  Half went to an event organized by the Archdiocese of San Juan, PR (many of our group are of Puerto Rican heritage) while the rest of us got a spot along the route planned for
the stations.  We camped out under some tarps we brought for shade. Did I mention the 100 degree days every day?  The next five hours were spent drinking water, praying, playing cards and trying to find food,
water and bathrooms.  As the time for the Stations drew close both groups were assembled (along with dozens of others from Portugal, Canada and Italy who slowly took over much of our space). Then came the
Pope.  We had not realized he would arrive at the square by Popemobile.  But there he was. The energy in the crowd and amongst our youth was awesome to behold.  Every time I thought it could not get any louder or
the pitch of the screaming girls could not get any higher … it got both louder and higher.  As he passed, he blessed us.  It is for moments like this that I spent over a year in preparation and planning, spent
thousands of dollars of fundraising and hours upon hours of time … all for that 30 seconds of mountaintop.  The stations we prayed followed in such a powerful and beautiful manner.   As only the Spanish can do,
they had full sized replicas of the station including statues, clothes and a lot of ornamentation.  The Youth Cross was carried by 15 different groups from groups such as “those who work with persons
suffering AIDs” and “youth from Japan and Haiti” and “unemployed and underemployed” and “Special Needs Youth.”  It was a striking moment of praying the Stations and realizing the Stations are lived in the
crosses we all carry.

The end of our time in Madrid centered around the final Vigil on Saturday night and Papal Mass on Sunday.  Five of us went ahead at 6 a.m. (on 3 ½ hours sleep) to get a spot.  We laid down our ground tarp at
the front of our section near the metal barricades (which became essential first for attaching our overhead tarps for shade and later for shelter when the storms rolled in).  It was a brutal day of intense heat.  We had some experience by then, but nothing could have really prepared us for the heat and the blinding sun and the crowds.  As the sun set we were ready for a beautiful evening of prayer and adoration.
Instead the clouds rolled in.  As an experienced leader I had all our sleeping bags and changes of clothes tarped up when I saw the approaching black clouds.  Then came the winds, pleasant at first after
the heat of the day but in time they approached dangerous levels.  Then came the rain, a driving rain that washed away the dust of the day and soon turned to torrents that knocked out the sound system and
threatened to ruin the event.  I must admit I got scared when the lightning first seen from a distance was all around us.  I’ve been hit by lightning and it is no joke. To see huge branch lighting, strike
after strike, over a field filled with a million people was frightening. 

Through it all the Pope braved on under umbrellas with no sound we could hear until time came for Adoration. 

The rains tapered off to a steady summer shower, the winds died down, the lightning passed and the voice of the Master of Ceremonies came over the speakers asking for silence as we begin Adoration.  To be in a field of youth who had just gone through a near hurricane situation that was now filled with silence … I was awed by the hush … I was lifted up as hundreds of thousands all around us kneeled with our Holy Father in
adoration and devotion.  It was powerful.  As the Pope gave us his final blessing the rains stopped and we knew we had to prepare for the night. 


 It was the most amazing tent I’ve ever erected.  We made it out of tarps and twine and twist ties.  We shared it with a Polish group to our right.  The center pole collapsed on me twice in the night, but the tent kept us dry for the morning Mass with the Pope.  It was a Mass which lifted each of us up in Word and Sacrament, a Mass in which we prayed for all our loved ones back home, a Mass that ended with Papal Blessing, a prayer to Mary and an invitation join again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013.

Barcelona:  I won’t describe the walk out of Quatros Vientos with a million of our newest friends in Christ, or the press getting on the subway and back to our housing site, or even the overnight train ride from Madrid to Barcelona.  Leave it to say that the exhaustion of all that was rewarded with two days of quiet and rest in that beautiful coastal city.  We were able to visit Sagrada Familiglia, the astounding basilica designed by Gaudi and blessed by Pope Benedict last fall. It will will be fully complete in 2026 but is a marvel of design and beauty even in its present form.  We walked the Ramblas and had a morning swimming in the Mediterranean.  We celebrated Mass in a hotel room: intimately remembering the words and deeds of our Lord.  We ate and
slept and showered and recuperated for the long flight home yesterday.

Home:  My last load of laundry contains only my alb and a hat I got at the last World Youth Day in Sydney Australia.  My clerical shirts hang up awaiting my ironing when I finish typing.   The salt stains are gone
but not forgotten.   My body reminds me of the enormous physical challenges I had as I led the group through these last few weeks. But my heart reminds me of the heights to which we went and the vision of a
Church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  As I finish this reflection I am reminded of the apostles who spent three years with Jesus and wrote Gospels that can be printed on a few pages of the Bible. The experiences that God led us through were more than my meager words can contain.  They were powerful and life changing, they were terrible and even life threatening, they were majestic and extraordinarily human.  It was the World Youth Day.  Over a million youth, one pope and God present through it all.

Fr. Brian McGrath, 8/25/11