August 20, 2011
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.