A pilgrim’s progress – the WYD experience

I am finding it really hard to condense my thoughts, memories and feelings about the World Youth Days into a coherent blog post. Maybe it’s still too early to do so. I’ve only been home for less than three days, after all. I can say one thing, though, the experience sticks. Looking back at my and other’s photos and reading their thoughts in blog posts and tweets, the WYD mood is still with me. My attitude to the daily things is different. I am certain that feeling will wane as time progresses, but for now I treasure it.

In the bus to Spain

There are many things that contribute to that feeling, which is ever so hard to put into words. There’s the company of fellow young Catholics and a bunch of priests in two buses on the long road to Zaragoza and later Madrid, buses in which the atmosphere and camaraderie was just fantastic. On the road through Belgium, France, around the Pyrenees and into Spain, this laid the groundwork for a group of almost 100 pilgrims who were there for each other and with each other. Another aspect was the accommodation, primitive as it may have been. We slept in sports centres, first with a group of some 60 pilgrims from Italy, later with almost all Dutch pilgrims (some 1,000, I would estimate). Comfortable it was not, sanitary facilities were mediocre at best, breakfast was laughable, but still… we were in it together, not for our individual selves, but for each other, for the Church, for Christ. There was the fatigue, with nights of, at most, five hours of sleep, and days filled with city tours, catechesis, Mass and cultural activities. There were also the physical discomfort, the injuries of foot and leg that a fair number of pilgrims suffered (myself included).

The view from 'Camp Holland' at Cuatro Vientos airbase

And then… there were the massive gatherings of people for the closing Mass in Zaragoza, the arrival of the pope, the beautiful Via Crucis and the closing Mass in Madrid. The latter especially, with the vigil, the storm, the baking heat and the distant pope, will indeed remain in my memory as he high point of the World Youth Days. We relied on each other, carrying only the things we could carry in our back pack, while we staked out our own ‘Camp Holland’ in section E8 on the Cuatro Vientos airbase. Temperatures soared to the high 30s, the Madrid fire department worked all day to keep people cool (and they deserve every commendation for their work), and then, as the Holy Father joined us, we were united in the downpour.

In the end, after the Mass the next morning, we smelled, we were tired, and all we could think of was cooling off in the pool around the corner, but we were blessed. Truly blessed. Sometimes it takes a while to notice this, but I firmly believe that the experience – all two weeks – changed us. And that belief, that faith, is what I want to keep as ‘normal life’ starts again.

The Holy Spirit in one of the domes of the Basilica or Nuestra Señora del Pilar

You notice that it is hard to put into words how my pilgrimage has been, and that is something I keep noticing especially when talking about it with family and friends who stayed at home. Of course, they have seen the news items on TV and Internet, seen the photos and heard the stories, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. A pilgrimage is more than a string of events. It is, so to speak, a full experience of body and mind, and that doesn’t translate well into words. It needs to be experienced to be understood. I’ve certainly learned that: the stories of friends who went to the World Youth Days in Sydney and Cologne do not compare to the real thing. And in that sense I was not prepared for what I got myself into. But sometimes it’s good not to be too prepared…

And now? I will continue to remember the past two weeks fondly and with gratitude, cultivate the friendships that were created and maintain the new vigour in my faith life. More practically, I’ll be reading what Pope Benedict XVI actually had to say to us; since I don’t speak Spanish, I couldn’t follow his homilies and addresses as they happened. I’ll be sharing the important sound bytes soon.

In closing I want to share some of the more than 300 photos I shot over the course of the Days in the Diocese and the actual World Youth Days. There are many more, by me and m fellow pilgrims as well as countless professional media outlets, but these will give you the smallest of impressions of what it was like.

On our way to the dinner location, with much song and flag waving
Pilgrims from all over the world, like these Japanese sisters in the chapel of St. John the Baptist, visited the Basilica in Zaragoza
Firemen bring deliverance from the heat at Cuatro Vientos
The sun sets over the Plaza del Pilar in Zaragoza
Zaragozan streetview
A pilgrim's dinner in Zaragoza
A great group of fellow pilgrims
En route to Spain, a Mass at the French shrine of Our Lady of Garaison
Early in the morning, crowds already fill the metro stations to Cuatro Vientos
Our spot in a small park, awaiting the arrival of the pope
Before departure, pilgrims arrive at Utrecht's St Catherine's cathedral
Sunrise over Cuatro Vientos
Sleeping arrangements in Zaragoza
The Basilica of Nuestra Señora del PIlar as seen from across the River Ebro
Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam gives the second catechesis talk
Watching the pilgrims and their flags return from the opening Mass in Madrid
Clear blue skies over the second day of our trip to Spain, at Notre Dam de Garaison

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