World Youth Day Diary: Day One

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Every day of this year’s triennial week-long Catholic festival in Madrid, Anna Halpine reports from the world’s largest gathering of young people.

Madrid has the feel of one large, international party. The streets of Madrid are filled with joyful pilgrims singing, waving flags and wearing colourful hats, shirts and bandannas. Every now and again the Italians, or Brazilians, or Spaniards start a chant and chorus to which everyone joins in. World Youth Day has literally taken over the city, and the city seems happy about this fact.

The official opening of World Youth Day is tonight in Madrid with a mass at 8pm. It marks the beginning of a week-long youth festival, culminating in a pilgrimage with the Pope this weekend. Taking place every three years, World Youth Day has become a global youth phenomenon, bringing together over one million young people at each event.

WYD is the special creation of Pope John Paul II. On the one hand, it is a global expression of the camping and hiking trips that he loved to take with his young friends. As Pope, John Paul II invited all of the young people of the world to pilgrimage with him, in different locations around the world. As such, he pointed to the unique expressions of holiness and belief found in every corner of the world and in every country he visited. World Youth Day became an occasion to share this treasure with the young people of the world.

I think too, that WYD can — and should — be seen as an outgrowth of the Solidarity movement in Poland that was so dear to his heart. John Paul II had witnessed the power of a “forest of awakened consciences” and knew the power of the truth that had ignited Poland under Communism, and had peacefully brought down a tyrannical regime. Something of this must have been in his imagination, when John Paul, ever mindful of the young, and thinking of them with a special joy, invited them to the first World Youth Day. World Youth Day was, and continues to be, a gift from John Paul to the world, giving young people a chance to see that they are not alone, and to provide them with an occasion for celebrating their faith and deepest longings with others in joy.

Pope Benedict continues to give this gift to young people, joining them later this week for a series of masses, reflections, and prayers. The attraction that this provides to young people is often considered surprising: what can these men, leaders of the Catholic Church, have to say to throngs of post-modern young people? World Youth Day repeatedly provides the answer. Young people thirst for meaning and purpose in their lives. They long for the transcendent. They wish to be told that they can be great, and to know that the path to greatness is found through the pursuit of virtue and holiness. They want to know that they can transform the world, and believe people who tell them that this transformation begins first through transforming themselves.

Young people in Madrid have already begun to chant welcome songs for Pope Benedict XVI. They are visiting the churches and holy places of Madrid. From the particular experience of World Youth Day in Spain, young pilgrims are led to experience the universal joy of their faith around the world. They are witnessing other young pilgrims like themselves — some priests and nuns, others young lay people. We can have confidence that friendships are being formed and that the consciences of many are being awakened and strengthened before they return to their various homes as lights to the world.

Anna Halpine is the founder of World Youth Alliance.