I don’t look at the Catholic Church the same anymore.
It’s impossible to, really, after seeing a million-plus people from all over the world participating in a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day in Madrid this past August.
When you’re a kid, you think the Catholic Church is your parish, a bishop and the pope. Sure, there are parishes a few miles away and you see them on the CYO field, but really, everything centers on your experience.
You don’t think about the fact that people of other languages pray the Hail Mary in Chinese until you’re crammed into a subway train with a couple hundred other people. And then it hits you like a lightning bolt as you hear the familiar cadence spoken by someone from a distant land.
When people refer to Catholicism as the universal church, it’s not a joke.
I traveled with the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s contingent to Madrid Aug. 14-21 to chronicle the experiences of the young people attending World Youth Day. Like me, there were some who were taking their first international flight and experiencing their first World Youth Day.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: seeing World Youth Day on television does it little justice.
Walking through the streets of Madrid, I saw young people of various countries proudly carry their flag alongside the Vatican’s and clutching crucifixes. The sounds of hundreds of teens chanting “Benedicto!” still rings in my ears.
World Youth Day is a party and the whole world is invited.
The archdiocesan young people, who ranged from early high school to early 30s, came from Hagerstown, Baltimore City and all over Baltimore County. When they arrived, some had little in common. By the end, they knew they shared faith and friendship.
It amazed me how comfortable they were with being followed by a guy with a camera and an audio recorder. They were always ready to talk, and talk, and talk. I was there when they heard catechesis talks from Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, experienced praise and worship music during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, made a trade with some kids from England or had to watch the Opening Mass on a large screen behind several large tree branches. They walked more than the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, but never wavered. They huddled together when a rainstorm came the night of a sleepover vigil. They weren’t going to let each other down.
And their faith was rewarded time and time again. When Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to arrive Aug. 18, they sat under the hot sun for seven hours and camped out at a spot along the guardrail 200 yards from where he would eventually address the masses. They were rewarded in the evening by the pope driving by in his wicked cool bubble mobile twice. Some welled up with tears as the Vicar of Christ was just 10 feet away from them.
A few days later, I asked pilgrim Kate Bechtel if she ever thought as a girl she would be so close to the pope. She welled up with tears before telling me that she had to go trade with someone from another country.
I flipped off the camera and wiped away a tear of my own. This was their church, right in front of them.
I got attached to these young people and I miss them already. Their faith strengthened my own and showed me how rich and diverse it is.
Many people are quick to say these young people are the church’s future. Some say young people are the present.
If the latter is true, the church is in very good hands for a long time to come.
To follow Matt Palmer’s journey through audio, video, pictures and words, visit CatholicReview/palmerblog.