Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Thing About Christmas

Yesterday I stood before a display rack of Christmas DVDs that must have included more than forty titles - cartoons, comedies, and classics. Most of them I'd never seen, but the story was likely to be predictable: a child / adult / animal is depressed / unappreciated / "difficult" or "different" and encounters / undergoes / confronts an experience / situation / challenge that is unpredictable / impossible / rare which thereby transforms / undercuts / alters the context / understanding / shape of their local world / life / reality.

Life's common themes prevail. And Christmas is a time when these common threads of life experience become focused and intense, concentrated around the story of the birth of Jesus, that quiet bursting forth of actual and potential immensity of life, love, and learning "in the bleak midwinter, long time ago." No matter the circumstance, it seems to say, transformation is possible because transformation lies planted within the deepest roots of things, and something beyond "mere" transformation has become incarnate, a reality in our midst.

Children hint as these things on a daily basis, as do those who approach life simply, radically, and with daily wonder (those I've met with Down's Syndrome come to mind, as do those I consider holy men and women). Their comments, gestures, and actions regularly burst forth with genuineness and passion; very little is lukewarm or artificial. Yes, they're not warm and fuzzy all the time. But they're all out there all the time. Like God.

That's perhaps the greatest challenge we have, to be more and more like God, to be more and more in love with our lives, our circumstances, our immediate neighbors, our daily challenges, and dare I say, even our enemies. Boy, is that one difficult, even for those who really try. But it's possible, unpredictable, and providential. 

Take one example. Radical love may perhaps be best exemplified in that strange thing called forgiveness, without which salvation and Christmas itself would have no meaning beyond the warm and fuzzy.

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells the story of her family’s efforts to help Jews in Holland and their later suffering in a Nazi death camp, where her sister Betsie died. Following liberation, Corrie, an avid evangelical Christian into her old age, lectured and preached throughout Europe on the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. After one of her talks, a man came up to her. He did not recognize her, but she recognized him immediately—he had been a particularly cruel SS guard at the Nazi death camp who had repented after the war and become an active Christian himself. She writes of their meeting:

How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, [Christ] has washed my sins away!” And suddenly, it was all there— the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. ... His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often about  the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. And even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer, Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.

As I took his hand a most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.  And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on [God’s]. When He tells us to love our enemies, He  gives, along with the command, the love itself…. It is a joy to accept forgiveness, but it is almost a greater joy to give forgiveness.

Sounds like God is in the building. 

This Christmas, imagine that it may be God's greatest joy to be able to bring forgiveness, to be able to bring it to birth in Jesus Christ and, through Christ, in each of us. What a great notion! And as we find joy in accepting forgiveness, there's a whole world of new joys to be explored in giving forgiveness, difficult at that may seem. Talk about real love in action.

May you have/find/seek the grace/hope/love that will burst through like a supernova - quiet, largely unseen, but HUGE - bringing true life to everything and everyone you touch.

[For those interested in my Christmas Newsletter, it's HERE.]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Yet another opinion about the "New" Mass

The new changes in the English translation for the Mass have led to all sorts of unexpected consequences, and I feel a bit out of sort. There was plenty of preparation, lots of discussion, and extensive coverage in the news and in the pews. But as with most things, the actual experience of change is often altogether different than one's expectations.

I remember going through the Latin-to-English transition period in the 1960's, when "And with you" sounded clunky and inauthentic, especially as an altar server who was used to the Latin responses. Now, "And with your Spirit" sounds clunky and strange. In that first transition, the move was from one language to another, and therefore everything was new. This present one is within the same language and seems so much harder, perhaps because only some things are new. The reason for some of the present awkwardness seems to be two-fold. One has to do with the subject of the change (the language) and the other with the context of the change (the ritual).

Having gone to Mass pretty much every day since 1970, the texts had become a part of me, like the Our Father, or fine poems, or parts of Shakespeare ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment..."). They had become a highway for my prayers, my thoughts, my way of living, with the words and phrases both familiar and accessible. I could pray as easily as I could speak to another person. I didn't have to think about which words to use. The medium had become part of me, a spiritual home.

The present change pulls that familiar linguistic rug out from under me. There's no way that I can keep my balance, let alone pray. Over the last few weeks, the Masses have been stilted and hesitant, juggling pew cards and books and new music. This will not last, of course. But the question is not whether we will grow used to it. My question - and it still is a question - is whether we will grow more prayerful through it.

The present change is not only a change in language, it's a change in character. It's not like putting on prism-glasses that make the world look upside down; something that  the brain quickly adjusts to, and everything is soon "normal." This is more like a well-loved and comfortable folk-dance that is suddenly altered, just a bit here and there. And as a result, people (the "folk") are bumping into one another all over the place, the dance-leaders (generally non-"folk") are doing their best to put a good face on it all, and those participating in the dance aren't having such a good time, too careful to avoid making mistakes to be able to really do what they came there to do; i.e., dance.

Unexpected consequences include getting lost in the multiple clauses of the prayers, the use of translated words that distance ("chalice" and "prevenient grace" come to mind) or confuse (How are we to convey a radically incarnational theology by using "with your Spirit" so much?), the need for weight-lifting classes for altar servers so that they can carry the new missal (You think that there won't soon be an iPad hidden in a carved-out old missal?), and the temptation to design kitchens instead of truly listening to the Eucharistic prayer.

Just one small example of something unexpected: that use of "chalice" an average of three times during the consecration. Did Jesus use an Aramaic or Hebrew word similar to our word "chalice" at the Last Supper? Do we use that word anywhere else except for the Mass? If it's now only used at Mass (and movie dialogues dealing with Kings and vampires and the like), is it wrong to think that we're quietly drifting towards a linguistic Docetism or Monophysitism [Look it up]?

Perhaps a future blog entry will take all this back and wax eloquently about the beauty of the text and the "rightness" of the changes, as many others are doing today. I can't predict that right now.

But I do really, sincerely, and simply hope that I (we) will come to pray more deeply as a result of these present changes. I don't have a lot of time to wait for the next translation, and I'm really sorry to see so much of what I was familiar with and grew close to ride off into the sunset.

"Shane, come back...."

Tempus fugit. Omnes translationes imperfecta.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Just" God

“God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.” (Meister Eckhart)

Why is it that so many insist on adding a possessive pronoun to any reference to God? Increasingly, it seems, published prayers and prayer leaders place “my,” “your,” or “our” in front of any reference to God.

“We now bring our prayers to our God...”
“May your personal God give you blessings in your life...”
“As you sit in the presence of your God...”
“The blessings that my God has given to me...”
“I invite you to pray to your God and our God so that...”

Somehow it appears to have become necessary to amend any reference to God, as if the simple word “God” has become too remote, or too limiting, or too great. Or perhaps people just don’t think about any of this too much and have habitually begun to think of God as simply one thing among many things in their lives. My God, your God, our God... What’s the difference? It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s just one of the many elements in my life, and every once in a while I think about it, just like I think about lots of other “things” during the course of my day.

Is it that difficult to realize that we are inadvertently domesticating (i.e., controlling) a reality that is not tameable? (For those who remember the Narnia Chronicles: “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”) Some poor and inadequate analogies: It’s as if a person were seen solely through the chemical makeup of a single one of his/her cells. It’s as if we judged the nature of the universe through what we saw by looking up at the sky during one minute of the day. It’s as if we were stuck in a cave looking at flickering images on the wall, the shadows of things behind us and unaware of the realities of the world outside, let alone the things making the shadows (apologies to Plato). The point was perhaps best indicated by Annie Dillard in one of her essays:

“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? ... Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

Now Annie does something different - she uses “the” in front of “god.” That’s a bit better, since it indicates a single reality, not one among many. But most mystics and holy folks dive more deeply and, when they refer to God at all, use the word “God” by itself … with care, humility, and trepidation, because even “the” indicates a reality that we can somehow define or encompass or comprehend. No wonder that the Hebrew Scriptures refer to God with “YHWH” and resist pronouncing the word at all, substituting Adonai or Jehovah instead. God’s true name is simply too holy to blithely throw around, even in a prayer.

There’s something important about all of this, but it continues to escape my full comprehension. Meister Eckhart helps a bit: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Those pronouns “my”, “your”, “our” and all the rest should be turned inside out. God does not belong to me or to us, I and we belong to God, yet we remain trapped in our own perspective. When we pray, truly pray, we begin to glimpse something of God’s true life; right now, right here, right away. We peek through the door, as it were, and are blinded by what we see. The temptation then is to call that “my door” and pretend that it adequately represents what lies behind it. In reality … in reality, it remains a mystery to me, and it’s best to simply acknowledge that. This may be sufficient, even beneficial.

The only thing I’m sure of is that I will never be able to speak of God with any pronoun attached; I can only hope and pray for my own growing, awkward attachment towards God.

Finally, God is nothing when compared to everything else we might know, love, understand, or pursue. I invite you to dive into the deep end of that reality with St. John of the Cross (1542 - 1591):

To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are no

Sunday, August 28, 2011

WYD 2011 - Departure and Completion

August 24, 2011

This is a simple entry to complete the journey. This morning we left Madrid for NYC and beyond. Starting before 6 AM, we gathered in the gym with all of our "stuff" and figured out what to leave behind as donations.

We arrived at the local Metro stop just when the trains began running, The trip out to the airport would take a while and we didn't want to be late. On the trains, other travelers seemed to be of the same mind, judging from the luggage they were dragging with them.

When we arrived at the Madrid airport, we were among the first in line for checking our luggage, getting our boarding cards and moving through the security lines. As before, once beyond security, it was a matter of waiting, sleeping, walking around, or looking at whatever stores were open early.

The plane was a simple jet, six seats across, and most of us were pretty cramped in our seats for the 7.5 hour journey to JFK. But it was all to be expected and the trip was uneventful.

Upon our arrival at JFK, the bus from Saint Raymond High School and JP Riley were waiting for the group. I remained at the airport for my flight to SFO three hours later, but I was able to get some last pictures as the group boarded the bus for the trip to Manhattan College where most would spend the night prior to moving on to their various home locations.

And so the journey comes to an end (on the outside). The inner journey continues.

All of the photographs from our WYD experience are here. Below is a slideshow of the photos from just today. For individual photographs, you can also click on the slideshow to go to the album.

WYD 2011 - Final Day in Madrid

August 23, 2011

Today was our final day in Madrid. Most people wanted to visit the Prado Museum during the day, and a small group wished to visit the stadium where the REAL Madrid soccer team played. I decided to join the stadium group and visit the Prado afterwards.

We began the day, as in the past, with morning prayer together and a short meeting. Then our small group departed for the bus into town. It wasn't hard to find the stadium once we came to the general area. It was the biggest thing out there. This soccer team is somewhat of a legend in the soccer world, not only because of its winning history but also because of its outreach programs to the needy and to kids. Tickets for the tour were a bit steep, but I think we all decided that finally it was worth the expense.

We bought our tickets and commenced the tour, along with many others who were visiting today. First we went up to one of the highest levels, where you could really get a good view of the entire stadium. From there we walked through various museum levels, showing the trophies, outreach programs, famous players, history and the like. Eventually, we reached the ground floor where the playing field was located. We were even able to sit in the seats that the players occupy during a game. What struck me most was the fact that there wasn't a bad seat in the house. Whether on top or near the bottom, everyone had a great view of the entire field. My guess is that the tickets to games would be quite pricey.

We ended up in the team store, of course, but none of us were willing play the somewhat outrageous prices that they were charging for simple jerseys or t-shirts. Instead, we simply looked and then made our way out and on to the Prado Museum. Along the way, we passed locations on the street where we had stood or sat during the WYD activities. Now they were completely abandoned and normal traffic was flowing. It was interesting to see these places in their "normal" state after being there when thousands of people had squeezed into these spaces in hopes of seeing the Holy Father and participating in the various WYD activities.

The Prado Museum was a great experience. The quality of artwork there was simply amazing. I spent about three hours walking through the various exhibits. I particularly likes the Velazquez, Goya, and Caravaggio paintings that they had, although there were also some surprises - paintings that jumped out of the wall or became more interesting the longer you looked at them. This was the kind of museum that required regular and intentional visits over a period of years in order to fully appreciate. But I did what I could and think that I absorbed as much as one could in an initial visit.

The group had split up initially and met up later in the afternoon, returning to the school via the Metro for our scheduled final gathering and prayer service. During the day, others had tried to get into the Prado but had found it too packed. They instead toured around on foot, ending up in a Benedictine Church where they were able to join into a Mass that was about the commence. They commented that this was exactly the thing they had been looking for and happily joined in.

When we had all gathered back at the school, in the small school chapel, one of the Brothers took our group photo in the yard outside of the chapel, and then we spent an hour or so talking about our pilgrimage experience - what it had meant to us, what stood out, what we had learned, etc.

The session turned out to be a great summary and celebration of our time together. A number of people said that the real value of the experience lay not so much in the WYD activities as in the life of our small ad hoc community. In the short time that we'd spent together, we had become a genuine community, gathered around a specific pilgrimage, purpose, and prayer. Our common experiences in the Lasallian world easily wound themselves into something larger than any one of us could have anticipated, a quietly joyful and significant journey of faith. In some ways, it was simple, straightforward, and direct. In other ways, it was profound, insightful, surprising, and filled with grace. Sort of like Lasallian education, it had aspects of practicality and whispers of eternity. By the end of the prayer service, I felt that we had come to a comfortable and solid place of completion. Much credit is to be given to Br. Peter Killeen for facilitating and organizing a structure by which all that was able to be accomplished.

After the service, we made our way to a nearby restaurant for our final meal together - simple, relaxed, comfortable, and fitting. We had had a wonderful time, and we were now ready to move ahead. I believe that we had also been able to convey a good sense of what the Brothers vocation was all about, perhaps not in so many words as in the example and experiences of the various people and situations that were part of this pilgrimage. In many ways, the value of a pilgrimage such as this lies with those who participate in it. Their intentions, personalities, expectations, behaviors, interactions, mistakes, conversations, prayers, frustrations, joys, and challenges shaped the character of the final impression - vaguely discerned but deeply felt.

No wonder that for centuries people went on pilgrimages, much to the chagrin of friends and family who couldn't quite figure out why they would do so. Like anything that emerges from a nascent passion and builds upon its exercise, the dynamic lies in the doing of it. All the rest is commentary.

All of the photographs from our WYD experience are here. Below is a slideshow of the photos from just today. For individual photographs, you can also click on the slideshow to go to the album.

WYD 2011 - Some Tourist Activities

August 22, 2011

Today was our day to relax and enjoy Madrid. In the morning, we had a prayer service and meeting in the school's chapel during which we reflected on our experiences thus far, especially those things that had surprised us over the last few days. It was a good way to share one another's impressions, observations, and thoughts. It can be quite profound to hear someone share a moment that, until then, had simply been a piece in a chain of moments but that now struck us with a new brilliance because of its personal significance.

Afterwards, we participated in a scheduled tour of the printing press next door. The Brother in charge took us through all aspects of the process, explaining as we went along. It was obviously a very extensive operation, with a lot of machinery and a fast variety of printing projects. Everyone was suitably impressed. The highlight for many was the machine that cut through stacks of paper with a razor-sharp electric cutter. Most of us could just imagine what it would do to an errant finger or limb. Clearly, this whole plant was a major player among the printeries in Spain and would certainly provide a good income for the District.

The group, without Br. Peter who decided to stay behind and rest, then proceeded to downtown Madrid on the bus, walking through the downtown area on the way to a large Daughters of Saint Paul bookstore where many shopped for small souvenirs to take back. Different groups went in different directions from there, the Brothers walking to where we thought the cathedral would be. Upon finding a small church that had "Cathedral" in its name, we also saw that it was closed. Since time was running out we proceeded a nearby Metro stop and returned to the school, since we Brothers had been invited to join the Brothers at the school for their 2 PM meal.

They were waiting for us when we arrived back at the community and we spent a fine hour with them, chatting in Spanish and enjoying the special meal (Paella, champagne, etc.) that they had prepared in our honor. At the end of the meal, the Director made a fine little speech, and Br. Ed responded in kind, having a good facility in Spanish because of his many years as principal in the Bronx. It was a warm gesture on their part and an enjoyable celebration of our common vocation as Brothers. We might not have fully understood one another's words, but we felt fully at home in our common life and consecration.

Peter had arranged to meet up with the others from our group who were already downtown, and we Brothers now tried to find the agreed-upon location. Emerging at a different Metro stop from those we'd known, we wandered around, finally realizing that this meeting might involve a bit of a walk. Nevertheless, we were able to see a good part of the city and eventually made our way to the actual Cathedral (not the "old" cathedral that had deceived us that morning), coming to it from below and visiting the crypt church before making our way along the street to the upper level. By now, we had missed our meeting time and thought we wouldn't be able to find our group. Then suddenly we say Thomas Gramc crossing a street about 200 feet ahead of us. We all shouted but he didn't seem to hear us. Then Ed used his NYC / Schoolyard voice and Tom noticed us, yelling at us to stay there while he retrieved the rest of the group.

And so we were providentially reunited. The reunited group visited the Madrid Cathedral and then followed Tom's plan to visit five historical churches in the area, saying a decade of the rosary at each one. First, there was the church of San Francisco (closed) where we ran into a group of primitive Franciscans of some ilk, several of whom were Americans. We chatted a bit and then said the decade together on the street before proceeding to the next church. This was a church that had been the resting place of the remains of St. Isidore (the farmer) before his body was moved to another, larger church down the street. Nevertheless, we stopped here and were offered a tour by a young man from Belgium who was part of an international religious group that does this sort of thing, offering tours in other countries at religious sites in a variety of languages. After we'd said our decade, he quietly gave us an extensive tour of the inside of the church, providing history and details that most of us would have missed.

On we went to the larger church where St. Isidore was currently interred above the main altar. A quiet decade in the back and then we wandered around the church, noticing the various artworks and side chapels. One interesting thing I found was a large wooden sculpture of the Dormition of Mary. This is a popular scene among icons of the Orthodox church, but I had never previously seen a Catholic depiction, let alone a sculpture.

We moved on to several more churches, ending up in a church where Mass was going and where each of said our decade silently. Along the way, we ran into a Dominican priest who knew the Brothers and an elderly lady whose brother had been educated by the Brothers. They both seemed happy to see us and eager to talk. It was all very friendly, serendipitous (providential?), and enjoyable.

The group ended up at one of the largest plazas in Madrid, lined with stores and restaurants. Scouts were sent out to check out the restaurants around the plaza. We ended up at an outdoor place in one of the corners of the plaza. Figuring out just what our left-over food vouchers would get us was a bit complicated, especially since our waiter was a Rumanian speaking a sort of Spanish that even our Spanish-speakers had trouble understanding, but eventually we settled down and enjoyed a good meal together. The group next to us was also from the U.S., with some having a connection to various Lasallian schools, and so we were soon trading small gifts and conversing together. When darkness descended, vendors with little neon-blue helicopter toys filled the plaza and the place was filled with small lights soaring up and down in the air.

On the way back, we were able to see the cathedral lit up in all its glory. Once we arrived at our "home" Metro stop, Peter spoke with the helpful station personnel in order to figure out how to get transit passes for the next couple of days, since our WYD passes would expire today. Eventually it was all figured out. He passed them out to us in anticipation of tomorrow's activities and we happily made our way back to the school for a well-deserved and peaceful night's rest.

All of the photographs from our WYD experience are here. Below is a slideshow of the photos from just today. For individual photographs, you can also click on the slideshow to go to the album.

WYD 2011 - the Longest Day Continues

August 21, 2011

There's nothing like a night of tossing and turning on the ground in the open air with a million and a half other people to make you appreciate the benefits of a quiet room and a soft mattress. I'm just thankful that there was no need to answer the call of nature. Every once in a while one would notice trucks rumbling by or see groups of all-night folks walking around, but generally the night passed peacefully.

Around 5 AM, I'd had enough rest on the hard earth and got up to walk around. Br. Ed was also up and about, standing in one of the main roadways, and I joined him there. We were impressed with the sight of several priests listening to confessions out in the open, walking about with their albs and stoles and quietly speaking to whomever walked up to them. Evidently they had been doing so all night, since I'd seen them the night before inside of the adoration chapel tents. Those tents were now empty and stripped of their tent covers because of the wind the night before. The organizers had taken that precaution once one of the chapels had had its cover torn off by the wind.

We decided to walk about, and for the next hour or so we made our way through the main lanes of the fields covered with a million sleeping bodies, small tents, sleeping bags, and tarps. Along the way we met several groups of nuns, already up and fully dressed in their habits, some of the volunteers who were guarding the entrances to the areas near the stage, and other early morning risers. At one point, Ed said that we were watching the church awaken. I must say that this is one of my favorite memories of the entire experience - seeing all these young people gradually awaken with the increasing light of the new morning, seeing the young church slowly come alive.

Back at our own camp, various people awoke at various times. Some, who had stayed up half the night wandering about and making new friends, remained asleep until the beginning Mass at 10 AM. A group of Italian youth nearby was brewing coffee for themselves and offering free expresso to whomever wanted some. Around eight in the morning, the speaker system came alive and we were all welcomed to a new day by the two perky young announcers - way too perky for that time in the morning. Right afterwards, there were twenty minutes of loud commercials on the big screens followed by scenes of the Holy Father from the previous evening. It wasn't until a little after 9 AM and activities began in earnest.

One surprising and upsetting thing was an announcement that was made that morning, and repeated several times, about communion during the upcoming Papal Mass. They said that because of the "hurricane" last night, some of the tent chapels had been damaged and that it would not be possible to provide communion for most of those attending. Only the priests and some of those in front would be receiving communion. (Actually, I think they were simply overwhelmed by the numbers and took the easiest way out.) The more I thought about that, the more ludicrous this excuse seemed. Yes, there were a lot of people there. Yes, there were some strong winds last evening (for about 10 minutes). But saying that because of this there would not be communion bordered on the inane. There were some 1200 priests up front, concelebrating, and several hundred bishops, not to mention the thousands of Catholic youth who had been volunteering and carrying the bulk of the labor organizing the event. To think that they couldn't figure out how to distribute communion, even with some limitations because of the weather, was just beyond me. It's one of the things we do well, distribute communion to many people. This was THE sacrament of the Church, and the reason why we were there with the Holy Father, and they were asking us to engage in a "spiritual" communion? Very, very strange, and a first in the history of world youth day, as far as I could tell. I couldn't help thinking that JP II would have told them "Figure it out! These youth came here to receive Jesus Christ, and we won't deny them." It showed a whole different sense of what liturgy and full participation meant.

The Mass itself proceeded fine, but many groups were making their way to the exits during the second half of the Mass and during the interminable speeches afterwards. Finally, the pope announced that the next WYD would be in Brazil in two years (World Cup Soccer would be the following year, hence the abnormal two-year gap instead of three) and we knew we were at the end. We cleaned up our area, piling up the things we would leave behind in a neat stack (tarps, stools, mats, etc.) since they would be collected and donated to charity. Then we gathered our things and began our way for the exits ourselves.

Remarkably, the journey out went very smoothly. They had closed the streets toward the Metro and there were just a few places where the crowds slowed down - primarily because some group had decided to stop and consult in the middle of the street before proceeding. Eventually, we came to the Aluche Metro station and stood in line to enter it. Only 100 people at a time were allowed in; enough for one train, so as to prevent accidents on the platform. It was recommended by one of the police officers that we should instead go to the train station 100 meters away, make our way downtown, and there pick up the Metro. And this we did. The journey involved a bit more walking, but the trains, while packed, were on time and we soon found ourselves back at the school.

We were all able to have a nice rest before the evening's activities. Meeting later in the afternoon, we first went to the Brothers chapel where Br. Stephen led a communion service - the completion of the morning's Papal Mass. Then we searched around and found a local pizza place where Br. Peter treated us to dinner (they didn't take WYD vouchers). By previous arrangement, most of us had committed to going to a demonstration soccer game at a downtown stadium that evening and we made our way downtown via a packed Metro. Once there, the rain returned, but we were able to get our tickets and find our wet seats. The place was filled with pilgrims, and the game was to be between sets of retired soccer starts, most of whom seemed to be in their thirties and forties.

When the rain didn't let up, Peter, Eddie, Len and I decided to see if we could sneak into the empty seats underneath the upper tiers, but these sections were guarded much more conscientiously than those at the airfield had been. Funny how priorities are lived out. So we decided to make our way back home, being little interested in watching old soccer stars run around in the rain surrounded by thousands of screaming fans and air horns.

We ended up quietly sitting for about an hour on a balcony outside of the Brothers dining room, enjoying one another's company and talking about our experiences in Spain. The rain had stopped, there was a nice breeze, and it was a fine time to enjoy our evening time together. It was a good end to the "official" part of the pilgrimage.

All of the photographs from our WYD experience are here. Below is a slideshow of the photos from just today. For individual photographs, you can also click on the slideshow to go to the album.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

WYD 2011 - The Longest Day

August 20, 2011

We had decided yesterday that today we would return to the "Love and Life" Center at the Palacio de Deportes for the morning liturgy for English-speaking pilgrims. It required an early start, but that was okay. It was going to be a long day anyway.

A number of us were comfortable walking around in our robes by now, and so we simply wore them on the Metro and for most of the morning. This time we made sure to arrive early enough to get good seats. When we did reach the Palacio, both Peter and I ran into one of the students who had joined us three years ago for WYD in Sydney. Otto and a friend of his were handing out leaflets advocating the canonization of Pierre Toussaint. It was good to briefly reacquaint ourselves with him and to see that his enthusiasm for the church and for his faith had not dimmed.

Inside the center, we tried different locations and finally decided to sit on the ground floor, near the middle in the back. Many bishops who would concelebrate were wandering around the hall, greeting others and interacting with the pilgrims. About four or five of them came up to us, seeing our robes, and spoke to us about their relationships with the Brothers, either as former students or as knowing the Brothers in their home diocese. They were inevitably complimentary and very pleased to see us.

When the Mass started, I was happy to see Cardinal Francis George (the main celebrant) who saw me during the procession and walked over to greet me briefly. During the Mass, Archbishop Timothy Dolan gave the homily. While he again left out the Brothers in his initial greeting to those attending, he did include us when he repeated the list (bishops, priests, deacons, sisters, etc.) during the homily. I like to think that perhaps Francis whispered something to him after he had left out the Brothers initially. In any case, it was a good homily. He does know how to speak to a large group.

At the end of the Mass, Francis George gestured to me that he'd see me afterwards in the back. All of the bishops were sticking around to greet pilgrims from their diocese. We made our way to the back and I had a few minutes catching up with Francis; certainly not enough time, but just enough to touch base. It's been too long since I've visited him in Chicago, and he is in his last year now. He's 74 and will submit his resignation next year. (We had known one another in the early 90's in Boston, when I was studying at BC and living with the OMI's in Brighton. At the time, he was a priest running a think-tank for Cardinal Law.) Hopefully, I'll be able to arrange something before too long. It was good to see him, however briefly, and take a few photographs.

We made our way back to Sagrada Corazon, the Lasallian school where we're staying, for a few hours break, getting some lunch at the now-popular Burger King nearby. Then we began to pack for our trip out to the old Madrid airport, where the major gathering of Catholic youth would take place with the pope. The radio had told everyone not to arrive too soon, since they would not open the fields until later, and we followed that recommendation, leaving around 2 PM.

The closer we came to our destination, the more pilgrims joined in. First, on the Metro, the trains became more and more packed. Once off the Metro, we simply followed the increasing crowds. Some were chanting, others were praying, others were simply trying to stay together. It was more and more crowded, very hot, and the atmosphere was filled with a sort of relaxed tension. People along the way would sometimes spray the grateful crowds with water from their garden hoses, or one person poured buckets of water from his 4th-floor balcony to shouts to "Gracias!" from below. At one point, Br. Peter began to recite the rosary out loud, and we joined in as we marched along. Later, some of our guys recalled that that helped them to relax and get into a better frame of mind about this wholly unique, somewhat challenging experience.

We arrived at the field and went through metal detectors (which we think were switched off and only there for show) and made our way to section D8, our designated area. I had been warned by Br. Chris Patino via a text message that the section was swamped with people already, although he and his kids from Cathedral High School had arrived much earlier. And this proved to be the case when we arrived. There was no place that wasn't either covered with people or being reserved for another group. After some slightly heated exchanges with folks saving places for others and a few awkward moments, the group decided to go to section F8, which we had been told still had room. This was quite a ways away from D8 and on the outer perimeter, but at least it was a place to stay. Each section was surrounded by metal barriers, and the entries were guarded by "Volunteers" - those Spanish young people with green jerseys who were ubiquitous throughout the events. At section F8, we were told that groups larger than 5 could not come in, since they were also filled. CJ Garcia spoke with them in Spanish and we were allowed to pass. He told them that someone was saving a place for our group of fifteen. A helpful fib.

Once inside, we soon found an area of dirt that was relatively unoccupied. We soon spread our tarps and made ourselves at home. Next to us was a group of religious and others from various countries in South America, and we soon saw that about 40 feet away was Br. Phong and his group of 90+ Vietnamese youth from San Jose. A little while later, we were able to claim another patch of ground that was somewhat contiguous with the space we already had. Within the hour we were settled in, napping in the hot sun. A couple of folks collected our food coupons and went to pick up our food bags for the day - called a "picnic" bag on the food coupon. When they returned, they had chosen the vegetarian option for all of us, since that line was by far the shortest one. Each bag contained water, drinks, food, snacks, and RTE meals for lunch, dinner, breakfast the following morning and a snack. It was plenty, and since Aramark was the company in charge, everything was fresh and well organized.

Our participation in the evening prayer service with the Holy Father was mediated primarily by the large screens scattered around the fields. With my binoculars, if one stood on a stool and looked just past one of the large scaffolds nearby that held up "our" giant speakers, we could see a tiny pope way in the distance under this lighted mushroom sort of focal point on the main stage. The screens were more immediate. He arrived, made his way around the large stage area and began the evening prayer service. I'd noticed some ominous clouds behind us, but they seemed to be moving in another direction. However, things changed.

About 15 minutes into the service, we saw lightning behind the stage and to the left of the fields. Behind and above us the clouds had become much darker. Then a warm, strong wind suddenly began, soon followed by light rain. After a while, the light rain turned to serious rain. From umbrellas and plastic rain covers, most of us ended up spending 20 minutes huddled together within a tarp sandwich, the rain drumming on top of us. The service was stopped - apparently some of the banners and decorations on the stage were being torn away by the winds - and the bishops and cardinals on the dais were able to seek shelter as well. When the rain let up, everything started again, the pope made a comment about being blessed by the rain, and the service continued to the end. The service ended with Eucharistic adoration, using a ten-foot ornate ancient monster monstrance from Toledo that emerged from the ground in front of the pope and after the service descended back to safety below. The pope said goodbye and left.

After it was all over, people began to mill about, some of us went to one of the nearby tent-chapels where we spent some time before the Blessed Sacramento (attacked by ants as we sat or knelt on the ground), before turning in. If there were 1.5 million people there, there were also 5 million ants. Those who only had mats to sleep on were bothered all night by the ants, while the rest of us were relatively safe on our large tarps. I rolled out my little 1-inch thick sleeping mat, borrowed a towel as a cover, and fitfully dozed through the night, waking up lots of times to sit up to stretch a bit and wonder why I was sleeping on the hard ground in an abandoned airport in Madrid. Several times during the night, trucks rumbled by (to empty garbage bins, etc.), and that group with the drums seemed to get more animated as the night passed on. But thank God for the little orange ear plugs. They made it all seem very far away.

All of the photographs from our WYD experience are here. Below is a slideshow of the photos from just today. For individual photos, you can also click on the slideshow to go to the album.

Friday, August 19, 2011

WYD 2011 - The Palacio de Deportes

August 19, 2011

(NOTE: Again, this is a double blog entry. The first one is the one that follows this one, since these blogs are uploaded as the latest one first.)

Today we decided to forego our local catechetical session and instead participate in the session at the "Love and Life" center downtown. This large venue was created by the USCCB (the bishops of the U.S.) and others for the English-speaking pilgrims. They provided talks, liturgies, resources, workshops, and a vocation cafe, along with various displays and the like. It was a good decision on our part.

In the morning, we had our group prayer and meeting in the open basketball court next to the gym, while the vietnamese group had theirs in the gymnasium. And afterwards, we also met one another in the Metro and traveled part of the way downtown together. They were off to a different venue while we were off to the Palacio de Desportes, a large stadium that can hold 15,000 people.

We quickly found the Palacio upon exciting the Metro and stood in line to have our bags checked. We apparently also needed our credentials from WYD, which some of us had left at home. During the bag check and general fussing around for our credentials, it became clear that this may be a problem. But rescue was on the way in the person of Br. Paul Bernarczyk, CSC (Executive Director of the NRVC and friend of the Brothers) who came out and convinced the security folks to let us through. He explained inside that they had been blocking anyone else from coming in, since the place was packed to the rafters. But he saw us and wanted to make sure to help us. "Anything for the Christian Brothers," he said. It was good to see him, although he had to immediately dash off to deal with another problem.

We made our way upstairs and found seats in generally the same area, although we had to split up into smaller groups. Soon the program began and out stepped Maggie McCarty and her husband to begin the morning´s activities. She was just appointed as Executive Director for the Regional Council of Lasallian Association for Mission (RCLAM for short), a new position for the Lasallian institutions in the US-Toronto Region, and it was great to see her in this prominent role. In her introduction, she stated that she was now working for the De La Salle Christian Brothers, which brought a cheer from various parts of the auditorium (including ours, of course). She and her husband spoke for a bit and then she introduced Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who would be the catechetical speaker for the morning.

Here followed a very good talk by Cardinal Dolan on the qualities needed for a firm faith. He quoted others, told stories about himself, and generally was both relaxed, personable, and learned. It was a fast 30-40 minutes of catechesis and we showed our appreciation for his teaching skills at the end. After a break, there was liturgy with some 250 priests and over 50 bishops in attendance. The parades (I mean processions) alone took 10 minutes or so. The whole thing went well, expect for two little niggling things. Cardinal Dolan introduced and had stand for applause the bishops in the audience, the priests in the audience, the sisters in the audience, and the Knights of Columbus. (Anything missing here?) I was waiting for something about others in consecrated life, or Brothers, or anything even vaguely similar. But it was not to be. I should accept this as part of our practical humility, I suppose. The other thing was that the guitar-based musical selections seemed to clash with the chant of the Gospel, the intonations of prayers and the like. I find both musical styles appealing in their own way, but mixing them seemed to be too promiscuously eclectic. But maybe I´m just being picky in my old(er) age.

Afterwards, we joined up with Br. Chris Patino and his group from Cathedral High School (Los Angeles) who were also there, and both groups went out to find a place where they would take 50+ for lunch. It ended up that we all split to different restaurants, and most of the folks in our group went to a small place where the highlight was the Chorizo Sandwich. Add a beer and you´ve got your full meal.

Although it was very hot and humid, a group of us decided to visit the Vocation area in a local park. It was interesting but strange. Here it was over 100 degrees and the "booths" were all in the open. Nevertheless, there were crowds of young people coming and going, picking up free trinkets and talking with the religious and priests who were promoting their lives. We spread out and spoke with folks as well, giving out whatever brochures we had brought. Many people recognized the robes and some enthusiastically so, recalling their own education or Brothers from within their own countries. I was not all that comfortable in my robe in the heat, but the ability to provide that witness to others made it all worthwhile.

After about an hour, we´d had enough and made our way back. Three of us returned to the Palacio for a presentation on prayer in main AIR-CONDITIONED arena. Along the way, we met several young men seeking their vocation and had some really fine conversations about the discernment process. The presentation on prayer was really very good, with four different speakers, and upon its completion we made our way "home" via the Metro where we joined the Brothers in the community in watching the Stations of Cross prayer service downtown with the Holy Father. A whole series of traditional floats were the main feature of the service. Some of our guys had decided to go downtown to watch it up close, and they came pretty close. But they said that once the Holy Father had arrived, the crush of people became too much and they made their long way home.

And later in the evening (are we becoming more Spanish, since it felt like the right time to eat?) we walked a block to a nearby restaurant to have our evening meal together. Other Lasallian groups were nearby, including some young Brothers from Brasil, and it seemed like a fine way to end the day.

The papal/pilgrim marathon begins tomorrow.

Below are photographs taken today. Click on the show to open up a page with all of the individual pictures with their captions.

WYD 2011 - The Pope Arrives

August 18, 2011

Today is the day that the Holy Father arrives in Madrid, and the activities of the day are pretty much geared around that pivotal event. We sort of know that we will likely not be able to get "up close and personal" with him, but we are going to try to experience as much of the day as possible.

For the catechetical teaching, the group was going to go back to the parish that we attended yesterday. I didn´t go because of the need to process the photographs and figure out how to get them online along with the blog. They told me later that the presenter was a bishop from Australia who was okay, but a bit dry for this group of youth. Afterwards, they had some lunch at the same restaurant as the day before and then returned to the school to prepare for the afternoon.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the now-familiar "Colon" station, where you pop up pretty much in the middle of all the action. Already, a large crowd had gathered around the main intersection (one of those circle interchanges made popular by Britain) to await the Holy Father´s motorcade on the way to the public evening prayer service. He had arrived around noon, when most people were in their catechetical sessions (who organizes these things?), and was now in the nunciature - a term that´s probably unique to the Vatican. The main body of our group, once we´d popped out of the ground, decided to grab a piece of sidewalk near the Barclay´s bank building, in the shade but close enough to be able to reach the street when required. I found a spot along the barricade and parked there behind some short people - I was thinking ahead - to wait the hour or so before the motorcade was to come by.

Nearby, there was a bit of a rucuss, and all sorts of police quietly but quickly moved into the area. Later on, I found out that there had been some sort of silent protest that was neutralized before it had a chance to develop further. But perhaps as a result, we were later told by the volunteers (folks in green shirts with a giant "V" on their back) that the motorcade would not be coming this way after all. So I made my way, with Br. Ed and Antonio, to a nearby plaza area where there was a giant screen clearly visible and active.

For the next couple of hours we parked there and watched the activities unfold. Every once in a while, someone would start the "Be....nedetto" clap, clap, clap chant and that would go on for a couple of minutes. But we mostly reacted to what we were watching on the screen. In today´s virtual environment, I guess it was as good as being there. It certain took less energy, a key component in this heat.

There were at least two times when there was some sort of medical emergency near our location, almost all of it having to do with the heat. Each time, the volunteers would be there first, quickly followed by the medical team (in orange shirts) and one time by the police, who cleared the area around the person so that medical folks could do their thing. I was impressed with the timeliness of the response and the thoroughness with which they addressed even apparently minor conditions.

At the end of the prayer service, we all regrouped at "home base" and decided to quickly jump into the Metro - in order to avoid the fiasco of two days ago at the same location - and make our way back to the area around the school for dinner. And so it went. The Metro ride was relatively smooth, although already there were lots of pilgrims making their way home. If we had waited even 5-10 minutes, it would have been impossible to return within two hours. Back in our own neighborhood, we went to a Burger King that we had seen and were able to use our meal coupons to receive a very nice dinner that even included 2 "shots" - some sort of desert concoction that came in a shot glass. I still haven´t figured out how or why they had those, but it was all very tasty. The only strange thing was that the eating area was taken up by a group of families with young kids, and these kids had no sense of discipline whatsoever. They ran hither and yon, had squirt guns with which they were spraying water around, while screaming their lungs out. The mothers even squirted them back! Some of us were passive participants in the action. But this was Spain and maybe that´s how things go here.

Our conclusion at the end of the day was that, while the day´s experience was generally good, the atmosphere downtown was not as devout or quiet as it had been for the Opening Mass. There was a lot of goofing around by kids and talking by adults. It probably had to do with the excitement of having the Holy Father present, and the fact that this was a prayer service. At the same time, the young people were beginning to really enjoy the fact that there were so many others of their ilk around. They now felt comfortable approaching others and asking where they were from, trading little gifts, and the like. God only know what all this will lead to in the next couple of days. But it´s all good and the spirit has been very posotive.

Below are some photographs of the day. Click on the show to go through the individual photographs along with their captions.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

WYD 2011 - Day of the Lasallian Gathering

August 17, 2011

(NOTE: This is the second of two blogs that I´ve uploaded on the same day. To start with the first one, look at the next one, if that makes sense.)

Our day began early, given our full day yesterday, with breakfast available at the school and a group meeting scheduled for 9:00 AM. After some orientation comments, the answering of questions, and the outline of the day, we were off to our catechetical site, a parish about a mile away. We had received our WYD backpacks and so were ready to proceed with all sorts of guides, books, keychains and the like. Each of us packed what we thought we might need for the day and set out.

It took a while to figure out how to get to the church, but eventually we got there and joined the English-speaking crowd, moving to the balcony of the the really uniquely configured church. There was an extensive welcoming orientation, with representatives from the various countries describing their typical meal and generally having a fun time. A couple of songs were sung, and then it was time for the bishop from Brooklyn to provide some catechesis.

Although I don´t remember his name (Br. Ed Shields knew him, however, and spoke with him), he did a very good job over the next hour or so, speaking about his own experiences of faith and guiding the young people to reflect on how Jesus could and should be deeply present in their lives. The youth listened attentively throughout, and some asked pointed questions afterwards. There followed a break after which the bishop celebrated Mass for everyone.

At the conclusion of the session, we set out to find a place for lunch, wandering about the neighborhood. Finally, Br. Peter asked a policeman who guided us to a large shopping center that included a number of restaurants. We wandered around the shopping center, which could have been located anywhere in the US, and found a large restaurant with a special menu for the WYD pilgrims. Luckily, we were among the first ones there and were able to get our food pretty quickly. Again, it was fine meal with lots of options. This was the place that had internet access, which I tried to access, having brought my computer with me, but it was as slow as molasses and I finally gave up. But the food was fine.

From the shopping center - our robes created a bit of a stir - we proceeded to a Jesuit parish downtown where Peter had signed us up for a vocation faire for English speaking pilgrims. We arrived early enough to get good seat in the auditorium, where Cardinal Sean O´Malley from Boston would lead the adoration service. After the service, we were signed up to pray as a group before the Blessed Sacrament for the first shift, which we did in a small basement room that had been set up for the purpose. When we left at the end of our time there, we found out that crowds of kids were on the streets waiting to come in. They hadn´t anticipated such crowds (although they probably should have) and as a result were running things as best they could. Our group ended up in the street, speaking with various folks about the Brothers. I had brought brochures with me, and we passed these out to those who were interested. Several of the Brothers were interviewed by a camera crew from Canada doing a story on religious vocations today. And the wristbands that I´d brought were, of course, quite popular as well.

Finally, we had to move on and make our way to Colegio La Salle, another school of 1,700 kids, where the Lasallian gathering was to be held. We figured out how to get there via the Metro - a long distance - and walked another mile from the Metro station to the school. There we were met by a tablefull of Brothers, many of them young, who gave us little yellow plastic shawls (something they do here as an identifying marker) and a fine welcome. Solid red t-shirts with ¨La Salle¨on them were on sale for 6 Euros, and the next couple of hours were spent with Lasallians from around the world who were gathered here for WYD.

It was all very energizing to meet so many Brothers, Lasallians, and students from so many places around the world. They communicated in Spanish, French, and English primarily, but mostly in Spanish. Somehow, the students ran around with smiles on their faces, talking to anyone they could find and appreciating their Lasallian connections. There were Brothers there from through Latin America (RELEM was having its meeting at the same time)and a number of the General Councillors, along with Br. Alvaro of course. Photographs were being taken left, right, and center. Large groups of kids were playing games in large circles, or trading wrist bands and t-shirts. It was a Babel of voices and fun.

Gradually things settled down and the ¨official¨ program got under way. There was a welcome by the Visitor, some songs for the group, introductions of each nation - accompanied by cheers and running around - and a prayer service. After this, students were invited to go to a series of workshops being offered around the property on a variety of topics. I had volunteered to be part of a workshop on the Vocation of the Brother. We had about 15 kids and adults join our group. One of the Brothers, thankfully, was able to translate between Spanish and English, since some English-speakers had joined this group as well. We spent about a half hour talking about the vocation and the mission of the Brothers. The questions were serious, thoughtful, and sincere, as were the answers. I was able to understand most of them because of my studies in Guatemala. However, I answered in English, allowing the Brother to translate what I said into Spanish. (Side note: I don´t know if this had been planned, but the young Spanish Brothers had been in the red La Salle t-shirts until after we´d arrived in our robes, and soon a number of them appeared in their robes as well, much to the delight of their students who took lots of photographs with them.)

By now it was fairly dark and we were released for dinner (10 PM - remember, this is Spain), and then we were called back to the large group around 10:30 PM. Once we had settled down, sort of, Br. Alvaro was introduced and he gave a talk to the young people, pointing out their importance for today and for the future. At the end of his talk, there were several musical pieces, and then a musical group was introduced. By now our own little group was ready to return ¨home¨ and so we made our exit, took the bus to the Metro station and made our way back. It had been another very full day.

One closing comment: After my small group session, I spoke with an elderly Brother who was standing on the grounds, watching the kids with a smile on his face. He was 83 years old but still very active. It´s important, he told me in Spanish, to stay active and helpful in whatever way you can. But then he said something quite profound, to my way of thinking. He said that he was so happy looking at all these young people who were commited to their faith, to the Lasallian mission, and to each other. He said that it indicated that his consecration had been successful. This experience confirmed the success of his consecration as a Brother. That´s my best personal take-away from the whole experience.

Below is a short slideshow of some of the photographs that I took during the day. Click on the show to see the photographs individually, along with their captions.

WYD 2011 - Things are Different Here

August 16, 2011

Things are different in Spain. This may not seem like a revelation, but it comes across in a variety of ways (some positive, some less so). Take for example this blog. For the past three days, I´ve been trying to figure out how to get a connection to the internet. The internet setup in the Brothers house is such that only dedicated computers can access the internet, despite my best and constand efforts. The wireless at a restaurant we went to had sporadic ¨free¨access that seemed slower than some of the lines in the stores. Finally, I´ve figured out that the only practical thing to do was to prepare the photos, etc. on my mini-laptop, transfer everything to a community desktop, and work with the somewhat strange keyboard to upload and complete the entries. It´s taken a whole bunch of hours, most of today in fact, but that´s what happens when you´re somewhere different - you adapt.

We all arrived at Manhattan College on the 15th and spent some time getting to know one another. Although it was raining torrentially in New York, we spent our time mostly indoors, venturing forth only for Mass and meals with the Brothers community. Brother Peter Killeen had things well in hand in terms of organization, schedule, and introductions. There were several meetings of the group, some relaxation, several discussions (including one on the letter from Pope Benedict to the pilgrims), and a general settling in.

On August 16th, we were hosted by the community at St. Raymond High School in the Bronx for lunch, traveling there in a schoolbus driven by Br. J.P. Riley, who would also take us to JFK afterwards. At the school, Br. Richard Galvin welcomed us and we were able to take a quick look around the neighborhood, including the renovated church across the street and the work that´s being done at the school. Very impressive stuff.

Finally, it was time to go to JFK where we checked in with AA94 for our flight to Madrid. The airline is using only kiosks now, so we had to figure out how to put in our information, scan our passports, and the like. But eventually everyone received their boarding pass and we stood in the security line for 40 minutes before being able to wander around the shops in the boarding area. The flight was delayed on the ground for about an hour, but some of the guys received a break when the flight attendant noticed that many of those in the exit rows were not English speakers. And so they had to change places with a bunch of guys from our group, who now were able to enjoy plenty of leg room.

A long flight later we arrived in the super-modern airport in Madrid, standing in line again at passport control, picking up our luggage, and eventually making our way out. At the exit, two Brothers were waiting for us with a ¨LaSalle¨sign, and so we were on the road within 15 minutes to La Salle Sagrada Corazon, one of the schools that the Brothers operate in the city.

At the school, we were welcomed by a number of Brothers and shown to the gym, where most of the guys would be staying. Peter had arranged that some of us would be able to stay in the community with the Brothers - a blessed thing. The first thing that we did after putting down our stuff was to have breakfast, since now it was around 9 AM (in Spain), and afterwards we got ourselves organized for the day.

Our WYD backpacks filled with ¨goodies¨ hadn´t yet arrived, but we did have our meal cards and a couple of other things. By the time lunch rolled around, we took off for a restaurant nearby where we had a fine meal, paid for by one of the vouchers that came from a meal-ticket book for all pilgrims. In a very smart move, the organizers had arranged with almost all restaurants (including fast food ones) to offer specific choices to the WYD pilgrims in return for these coupons, which would be turned in later for reimbursement. As a result, no one from the WYD group had to prepare a million meals for others to consume. It was all dealt with from within the established food service structure. And the meals we´ve had since then have all been very good.

Then it was off to the venue for the Opening Mass, somewhere near the center of Madrid. We followed the suggestions on the map and emerged from the Metro onto an avenue with an increasing amount of youth pressing in from all sides. We walked around a bit before deciding on a spot of grass along the main avenue with a good view of one of the giant screens set up for those not able to squeeze into the main square. As it was, it was a good spot, but one that increasingly became tighter and tighter, as more and more people tried to get in and fit onto any small piece of ground that was available. Some of the nuns, with a smile, could be a bit pushy. I would guess that each of us had about 3.5 square feet, if that.

Nevertheless, things moved along smoothly. There were loud, boisterous moments, and there were quiet, solemn moments. Once the Mass started, everyone quieted down and it was as if we were part of an immense open cathedral, with a million or so people inside of it, all listening intently and devoutly. Communion was a bit of a zoo, and many a flower lost their lives, but somehow it all worked pretty well.

At the end of the Mass, we made our way up the avenue but couldn´t even come near any of the Metro stations, fully blocked with crowds of kids. We found a nearby bar and restaurant and tried to get some food there. We managed to slip into some booths and tables for an hour or so, but there was to be no service; they were simply overwhelmed (and looked it). Peter and I did meet a lawyer from Caracas, who greeted us in Spanish and ended up buying both of us a beer - very happily on our part. He had been a student of the Brothers as a youth and obviously carried very fond memories, partly tearing up at times as he saw us in our robes.

We finally decided that it would be impossible to get any food there and so left for home via the Metro, which by now had eased up. Once back in our neighborhood, pretty much on the outskirts of Madrid, the roads were very quiet - it was 11:30 PM or later - and all restaurants, save one, were closed. I decided to turn in but many of the others went to the one restaurant for a hamburger (the only thing on the menu) before turning in.

And so our first full day of WYD in Spain came to a close.

Below is a slideshow of some of the pictures that I took during the day. You can click on the show to go through the individual photographs, along with their captions.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Last Week in Antigua

This part of my Guatemalan journey came to an end this week. My teacher, Silvia, introduced the future tense and had me use it in different kinds of formats, but mostly we simply had conversations - which I find the most helpful. As I'm struggling to speak, she will correct me quietly while also encouraging me to proceed, and then she will speak about something a little more quickly, in order to improve my comprehension - slipping in the new words we had been studying. It's a very effective method that may even be called enjoyable.

On Tuesday, I was invited to Chata's house (see previous blog) for almuerzo (lunch). Her son, Joshua, picked me up with his two girls, and I spent the next 90 minutes or so with Chata's family. There was another American who had been invited, a student of Joshua's wife, who also teaches English. Because it was her birthday, it was a very festive meal with other relatives and friends in attendance. As it turned out, there were three birthday cakes, two of them brought by a couple of the guests.

This was a nice way to round out my experience in Guatemala, since clearly Chata and her family were more like the "typical" family of the town. It was a simple home with extended relatives living there and everyone working at some sort of job. Even Chata had opened a small store out of her front room facing the street. Lots of kids around, and a comfortable family atmosphere. The lunch was carefully prepared and appreciated by everyone. Between my limited Spanish and those who spoke English, everyone communicated just fine.

At the end of the meal, I took a picture of the whole family in their backyard, which abuts a coffee plantation. They have access to the larger property, since there is no fence, and therefore the kids have a huge "backyard" in which to play. Joshua hopes to build an addition to the house in the near future so that they can have Spanish students staying with them (64 language schools in Antigua), which would provide another source of income for the family.

The rest of the week went by quickly, and soon it was Friday evening. The Brothers had a small "fiesta" or social before dinner in my honor. I'd figured that something like that might happen and had prepared some remarks in Spanish. The tradition seems to be that prior to starting the party, the Director makes some remarks and then invites the person being honored to do the same. I just hope that what I said made sense, since I hadn't had a chance to check it with any native speakers. I either thanked them for their hospitality or told them that I would be going to the hospital. In any case, they seemed to smile and nod enough to indicate that they understood my intent.

We had a couple of guests from Chicago that evening as well. They were part of a foundation that supports the education of poor kids in the Americas and had been involved with Br. Francisco and schools in the District for some years, especially the school in Nestor (way in the boonies). Most of the people involved were retired professionals who wanted to do charitable work that required some sort of sacrifice and personal effort. Clearly, they were getting at least as much out of their efforts as their beneficiaries.

Later on, after dinner, Steve brought out his guitar and began singing and playing all sorts of songs and musical styles. He's very talented in both his guitar playing and in the variety of songs that he's learned by heart, and soon we were singing songs from the 40's and 60's and beyond. His passion is playing and singing, and it's clearly a "vocation" for him. His father always listened to John Denver - so he had that repertoire down cold - and he had a singing voice very much like John Denver's, clear and pure. We were all taken by his performance, joining in when we recalled the words - or rather singing in semi-fragments of phrases with sung mumbles in between. After he finished, Br. Francisco brought out his guitar and we finished the evening with a bunch of fine Spanish songs, throwing in a couple of popular Mexican tunes that have world-wide appeal.

Subsequently, I spent several hours packing up my stuff. Amazing how my suitcase seems to have shrunk! Everything was able to be packed into my two bags, but it was a tight squeeze. Even so, I left a couple of things for the Brothers there to use as they saw fit. Early the next morning, at 4:00 AM, I was standing outside of the house on the street waiting for the minibus that would take me to the airport in Guatemala City. Sounds from one of the bars around the corner could still be heard, but generally the place was quiet and abandoned. A good, quiet, semi-reflective way to end my very happy stay in Antigua.

Now it was on to Miami and NYC, where Br. Peter Killeen met me outside of JFK for the ride to Manhattan College. But that's another story.

This Antigua experience has been one of the highlights of the summer. I was able to learn a bit of Spanish and learn much about the Brothers and the people of Guatemala. If possible, I'd like to come back in another summer to study some more. The key now is to practice, practice, practice. So if you see me at some point, feel free to speak Spanish to me. I'll probably greet that with wide eyes, a wane smile, and a halting attempt to reply in Spanish. But know that this is a good thing, a helpful thing, and finally the needed thing. You can stop speaking Spanish when I'm completely spluttering in some sort of Spanglish mix and you can no longer understand my attempts at either language. It means that I've stretched just a bit further, and education is in process.

Welcome to the world of learning. Thanks for being part of my school.

For more pictures, see below. Click on the show to go through the individual photographs with their captions.