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I’m just back from World Youth Day in Madrid. We took the non-budget option, thank goodness; so instead of staying on school floors and going for a communal ‘hose-down’ in the yard each morning (as some friends had to do), we had the relative luxury of beds and hot showers. You can’t imagine the Madrid heat if you haven’t experienced it. It was 39°C walking to the Vigil on Saturday afternoon (that’s over 100°F), with rucksacks and sleeping bags on our shoulders. No wonder the medical services were stretched.

There were 121 pilgrims in the group from Westminster Diocese. At the beginning we had four glorious days in Salamanca. I’m glad, this time, that we didn’t stay with Spanish host families, because we needed time to get to know each other. Many of the young people came as representatives of their home parishes, and so wouldn’t have known many others before. Salamanca gave us the chance just to be with each other before the madness of Madrid; with time for prayer, catechesis, discussion, and plenty of opportunities to explore the city, to soak up the pre-World Youth Day atmosphere, and learn the meaning of ‘tapas’ and ‘cerveza’.

For some, the highlight was doing the conga round the Plaza Mayor, perhaps the most beautiful square in Europe, with several hundred Koreans, Zambians and Australians, as the clock struck midnight. For others, it was a frenzied search, instigated by our irrepressible Spanish guide, for a mythical frog carved into the facade of the university which – if found – would guarantee you delivery of a faithful and loving spouse. Pretty high stakes.

After a day in Avila, visiting all the Teresian sights, we got to our accommodation in Madrid on Monday evening last week.

What is World Youth Day? Let me give you the basics, in case you haven’t heard much before; and then a couple of reflections. Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics converge on a different city every two or three years to celebrate their faith and meet the Pope. At the beginning of the week, there is a Mass of welcome, which is the first time that you get a sense of how many people are there. This time it took place in the centre of the city around the Cibeles area. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is a pattern of smaller-scale local catechesis in the morning, with the afternoons and evenings free to join in the ‘Festival of Youth’.

The catechesis takes place in language groups, often in a local church, but sometimes in a big stadium or conference hall. It’s usually a package of music, drama, testimonies, etc., organised by a particular youth group. The centrepiece is a chunky catechetical talk from a bishop, together with a Q&A session. It’s one of the rare occasions when young people get the chance to fire questions at a bishop – any questions at all – and to hear his spontaneous responses. And the morning session ends with Mass.

The ‘Festival of Youth’ is a vast jamboree of events that take place over the city during the week. Hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, prayer services, talks, panels, and much more. You can spend hours just browsing through the programme, and the challenge is to select just one or two things each day that sound especially appealing and try to make them. Or you can eat. Or you can sleep. Or just hang out. It’s hard to do everything. And in the intense heat of Madrid I did a lot less than I wished and usually opted for a long lunch and a siesta, with the odd venture out into the city.

Midweek the Pope arrives, which is an excuse for another huge central celebration. Sometime on the Friday there is traditionally a World Youth Day Stations of the Cross. And then everyone who is registered, together with hundreds of thousands of others, head to a vast out-of-town venue for the Prayer Vigil on Saturday evening and the final Mass on Sunday morning. In Madrid it took place at Cuatro Vientos, an airfield in the south of the city.

By the time we got there, about 5.30pm, the main area – which holds 800,000 people – was already full. It gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the event. In our overflow area, which was meant for the day visitors the following morning, there must have been two or three hundred thousand people by the time the Vigil started; so I can quite believe that with the addition of ordinary Spanish parishioners who came for Mass the next day there were over 1.5 million people and even nearer to 2 million, as the organisers claim. Just take a look at the aerial photos. I’ve since heard that some groups didn’t even get into the overflow area because that was full.

On the one hand, it was incredibly frustrating for us to be ‘outside’, given that we had reserved tickets for sector E1 in the airfield itself. Someone had done their calculations wrong, or opened the gates without any scrutiny of the passes. And there was a shocking lack of care for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the overflow area – above all the lack of drinking water and food (our designated food parcels were inside the complex and we were not allowed in to collect them), and the complete absence of information or hands on assistance. On the other hand, people were very patient and accepting, recognising without the need for any sermons that there is a grace in not having the best seat and bearing this kind of small deprivation humbly. We could see a screen easily; emergency supplies arrived at 3 in the morning; and the advantage of being on the outside was having space to stretch out and as many portaloos as you could wish for – unlike those penned inside.

Just as the Pope came out, about 8.30pm, an incredible storm came over the area; lightning, thunder, horizontal rain. It was pretty scary, and the organisers obviously didn’t know what to do, so they just stood there behind their white umbrellas, trying to keep the Pope dry; and we huddled together; and the less trusting ones amongst us – me included – wondered whether we should leave while the underground trains were still running.

Eventually the storm passed, and there was an incredibly profound twenty minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s quite something to kneel in silence before the Lord with over a million people, and have a sense of how the silence and prayer are taking you deeper and deeper. People commented on this when we had Exposition in Hyde Park on the Saturday of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain; and I felt it even more in Cuatro Vientos – the power of silent Adoration, not just as a psychological manifestation of being united in such a huge group, but something spiritual, the power of Christ’s Presence.

We slept under the stars, when the singing and dancing finally died down in the early hours, and woke for Mass at 9.30. With some other Westminster priests, I managed to use my ‘sacerdote’ pass to get into the main airfield, and then to the seating just in front of the sanctuary reserved for concelebrating priests – thousands of us. One of the first things I did was stand on my seat just to take a look at the crowds behind me – a staggering sight, although it made me appreciate the numbers that must have been at the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000, which seemed to be even greater. I slept in my seat before things started, and then managed to stay awake for Mass. It was heartbreaking that Holy Communion couldn’t be distributed to most of the congregation, because most of the chapels scattered round the airfield that were meant to hold the consecrated hosts were literally blown away in the storm the night before.

The storm coming in during the Saturday evening Vigil

Somehow we got back to base after the Mass; showered and slept a bit; had a final evening together in the hostel; and came home on the Monday.

I’m just writing about external events, and it’s hard to convey the deeper currents that flow through the week-long celebration, and through the hearts and minds of each group and each individual. What is it about World Youth Day that touches the people involved so profoundly and so personally? I think that there is a real grace to the event, a grace of conversion, of being renewed in faith, of glimpsing something of God and of the Church and of oneself as if for the first time – I’ve seen this on every World Youth Day I’ve been on (and this is my fifth…). It’s far more than some kind of mass hysteria; far more than an over-blown youth festival or an outdated homage to John Paul II (as some might think).

First, I think it’s an experience of the Church. The ordinary, simple reality of the Church, that is simply not seen very often. People being together, knowing each other, sharing each other’s lives. The beauty of the faith explained, in ways that speak to the heart and connect with the ordinary realities of life. The sacraments celebrated worthily, joyfully, with some solid catechesis behind them. The diversity of what it means to he Catholic, and the unity of the Catholic faith – at the same time. And of course meeting the Pope, praying with him and with so many others in such a visible expression of Christian communion. I don’t think there is some great secret to Catholic youth work – it’s just about living the Catholic faith, and creating a context in which it can be lived, in all its fullness.

Second, it’s obviously an experience of pilgrimage, in a particular form. So all the well-known graces of this experience are allowed to flourish – getting away from things, making sacrifices, travelling to a holy destination, carrying a particular intention, meeting new people, putting ordinary life in perspective, having extra time to pray and reflect, etc. This is true for Lourdes and Walsingham and a thousand other pilgrimages.

Third, I think World Youth Day allows young people to experience not just the Church as Church (faith, sacraments, Pope, community, etc.), but the way one’s whole life can be transformed by a living faith. Maybe because people are trying harder, maybe because they are liberated from some of the struggles that plague them back home, maybe because it’s easier when you are constantly being reminded about the meaning of faith and noticing it in the lives of those around you – but you really see what it means to love Christ and to share his love with others, and you see how much better the world is because of that. You see how the Catholic faith makes sense of life; how it makes life more alive.

You see how different life is when it is founded on prayer, generosity, service, sacrifice, forgiveness, joy, humility, and all the other virtues that can so easily be forgotten or even dismissed. You see how different life is when people are really living their Catholic faith and founding it on the love of Christ, even with all their human weaknesses; and when a community is trying to live it, not just for their own integrity, but for the sake of others too. It really works; it shines and sometimes dazzles. It’s just not put to the test very often. When you see it, on these strange occasions like a World Youth Day pilgrimage, you can’t but be affected. And no wonder the young people coming home are coming back a little bit different.

You can see some of our Westminster photos on Flickr here, and the official Spanish WYD photos here.

Apologies for the long post – it’s been quite an intense few days!

I’m off to Walsingham on Thursday for another huge youth event, this time the annual Youth 2000 summer festival. It’s like a mini-World Youth Day, only in Norfolk, England! So if you are between 16 and 35, and didn’t get the chance to go to Madrid, why not think about coming along. Or even if you did. It’s from Thursday 25 August to Monday 29. The details are here.

And to finish. One of the few disappointments from Madrid was this year’s theme song. So here is the one from Sydney three years ago, one of my favourite ‘worship songs’ of all time (if it comes under that category):

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The Power of Prayer by Loci Lenar.I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.

If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.

In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.

Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.

But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).

This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.

Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.

[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled ‘The next generation of Catholic leaders’. We seem to be thinking along similar lines…]

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When I was thinking about starting this blog, I wanted to call it Borderlands and Bridges. I’d just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy – which had blown me away. I liked the image of the threshold – a place between other places. Not just somewhere you pass through, or pass over, but a place where unexpected things happen; where you get lost or even trapped; where worlds collide; where your identity is in question. In the end, the blog title was simply too long for a manageable web-address, so I went off at a tangent instead…

There was an experience of the ‘borderland’ this week in central London. The relics of St Thérèse were in Westminster Cathedral for four days. It was an extraordinary experience for all those who came – many with a deep faith hoping that it would be renewed, some hardly knowing why they were there. But what made it so interesting was the threshold between the religious space of the Cathedral and the secular space of the city.

Westminster Cathedral by Reigh LeBlanc.

The queuing took place in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. Thousands of people winding their way patiently through the labyrinth of metal barriers. A huge screen broadcasting the services from inside. A fish and chips kiosk set up on the street by the Cathedral authorities. McDonalds on one corner. Clarke’s shoe shop on the other. And many more thousands of people passing along Victoria Street – shopping, working, drifting – wondering what it was all about.

It wasn’t just the carnival atmosphere (which is felt at any street party or sporting event). It was the fact that this witness of faith flowed out from the confines of the religious building into the streets, and this allowed people to wonder, to show a natural human interest, and even to ask deeper questions about life that might not come to the surface otherwise. The public expression of faith in the piazza gave people permission to reflect on the place of faith in their lives – not just the committed and the devout, but those who were full of doubts or simply passing by.

Not everyone wants to visit relics or stand around in Victoria Street for two hours. But there is a public aspect to Christian faith that was expressed here in a particularly powerful way. Catholics were happy to show that they were Catholics, to talk about what was important to them. Not in a showy or arrogant way, but in a way that was simple, natural, honest, uninhibited.

It doesn’t mean that Christianity wants to impose itself on a pluralistic culture. But it hopes to have a place in that culture. Why? Above all, so that the culture is set free to discover human and spiritual depths that might otherwise be forgotten.

[To get a glimpse of what has been happening with the tour of the relics over the last five weeks see the excellent official blog of the visit.]

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