My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This column comes to you from Madrid, Spain, where I have attended World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI for a gathering of one and a half million pilgrims from 193 countries from around the world. Among those participating are almost one hundred young people and adult leaders from our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, including Father Brian Alford, Father Chris Brey, Father Nnamdi Moneme, Father Daren Zehnle, and seminarians Steve Arisman and Hyland Smith.
The tradition of World Youth Days was started by our late Holy Father, Blessed Pope John Paul II. Skeptics scoffed that it wouldn't work. They thought young people would not come to an event focused on religion being led by an elderly pope. Wow, were they wrong! Huge crowds of young Catholics have been gathering for these events now held every two or three years each time in a different part of the world.
The first World Youth Day that I attended was in Toronto when I was a pastor of a parish and drove with 15 young people and five adults from Chicago to Toronto. It was an experience I'll never forget, especially the closing day. We had camped out in sleeping bags in the open field where Pope John Paul II would celebrate the closing Mass. At about 5 in the morning, it started to rain. We priests who were concelebrating had to arrive early at the Mass site to go through security and put on our vestments. By now it was raining very hard, but we had to sit and wait for a couple of hours for Mass to start. Even with plastic ponchos over our vestments and holding umbrellas over our heads, we were totally soaked by the time Mass started. Instead of a Penitential Rite, the Mass booklet said, "Rite of Sprinkling." Pope John Paul II looked out at the crowd in the pouring rain and declared, "Today we will have the Rite of Sprinkling by natural means!" Then after he said the prayer, the rain stopped and the sun came out as we began singing the Gloria. No wonder he has been beatified and will likely be declared a saint!
Here in Madrid it has been mostly hot and dry, typical for Spain in August. I have been beating the heat by running early in the morning before the sun comes up. At that hour it is still cool and I had the park mostly to myself before the crowds of people started pouring in. I'm training to run the Kansas City Marathon on Oct. 15 with the LIFE Runners. I'll write more about that in my next column.
World Youth Day is really a week-long series of events, which began on Tuesday, Aug. 16, with an outdoor Opening Mass for the pilgrims in the Plaza de Cibeles that I concelebrated with the many other bishops and priests from all over the world. The principal celebrant was the Archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio Maria Ruoco Varela. During the week, there were many scheduled activities, including catechesis led by several bishops in various languages, opportunities for the sacrament of penance, plenty of music, and time just to meet and be with other people.
On Friday I celebrated Mass for the group from our diocese and preached on the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to join him in here in Madrid to pray together, to reflect together and to learn together how to be "planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith" (cf. Colossians 2:7). I noted how we from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois come from a part of the country where farming is very important and we can appreciate the Holy Father's metaphor of being firmly planted in the faith. Earlier this week, Father Zehnle and I were driving to Alton for Mass with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. I noticed that the corn had already grown very tall. It was a visible reminder that the seed firmly planted bears fruit in abundance.
I then did a question and answer session with our group for about an hour, covering a wide range of topics including the church's teaching on sexuality and marriage, devotional prayer, eucharistic adoration, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and how Christianity came to Spain through the apostolic work of St. James. Afterwards Father Zehnle was asked to hear confessions by some of our pilgrims and I was asked by some Spanish people to hear their confessions. Fortunately I remembered the words to the Prayer of Absolution in Spanish from my years as a parish priest working with Mexican immigrants. Going to confession is something we might think young people are not interested in, but actually they are eager to receive God's mercy and forgiveness.
Afterwards Father Zehnle and I walked back to our hotel. On the way, crowds were already gathering for the Way of the Cross, and many of them stopped me to ask for a picture, since I was wearing my bishop's cassock. I met people from across the United States and Canada, as well as from a variety of other countries, greeting them in English, Spanish, Polish and Italian. The most enthusiastic people to greet me and have their picture taken with a bishop were from Taiwan. I don't speak Chinese, but fortunately they spoke English very well.
On Saturday morning the bishops and priests of the United States celebrated Mass for thousands of American youth at the local sports arena, led by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as the main celebrant and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as the homilist. Archbishop Dolan gave an inspiring homily about St. Peter's life being turned around and upside down by Jesus and how we are called to do the same as we gather with the pope, the successor of St. Peter. His words were just the right preface that we needed for the culmination of the trip, the Saturday evening Prayer Vigil and the closing Mass with the pope on Sunday morning.
The rains came on Saturday evening and interrupted the pope's homily, but everyone just waited patiently for the rain to stop and then we continued. Sunday morning was sunny and bright. For me the most powerful moments were the periods of silent prayer during eucharistic adoration on Saturday evening and during Mass on Sunday. The silence of one and a half million people adoring God and meditating together in silence is a powerful witness of faith.
I'm sure this will turn out to be not only a memorable week but also a life-changing experience for many of the participants, as they deepen their faith and commitment to the Lord.
May God give us this grace. Amen.