Madrid, Spain — more than a million young people. City streets, restaurants and public transportation crowded with pilgrims. Massive gatherings filled with laughter, song, dance, prayer, silence, reflection and — above all — celebration of the Catholic faith. This is but a snapshot of World Youth Day 2011.
World Youth Day, created in 1985 by blessed Pope John Paul II, is “a grand festivity of faith celebrating the joy of the personal encounter of young people with Christ, gathered around his Vicar on earth, the Pope.” (WYD ‘11 Pilgrim’s Guide 14). It takes place every two to three years in different cities around the world and is geared to 18- to 39-year-olds. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “so many young people are still ignorant of God’s love, or they seek to fill their hearts with insignificant substitutes… I wish that all the young people, both those who share our faith and those who hesitate, falter in belief or don’t believe at all, could live this experience.” (WYD ‘11 Pilgrims Guide 37,15). World Youth Day strengthens not only the participants but also the host city residents, as they witness the faith of the pilgrims.
This August, I was blessed to join 60 other pilgrims from the Diocese of Orlando, including Bishop John Noonan, Fr. Miguel Gonzalez, Fr. Tim Daly, eight seminarians and many different lay people. This year’s theme was “planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith” (Colossians 2:7). I attended World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 as a college student, at which Pope John Paul II said, “At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of life has been put into your hands. And the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation, the young Church.” Now a generation older, having experienced WYD ’11 with today’s young adults, I know that the Church is in good hands!
Before World Youth Day started, we began our journey in Assisi and Rome, exploring sites of great historical and religious significance. We celebrated Mass together as a Diocese in sacred sites including St. Mary of the Angels and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and the St. Joseph chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
One of our highlights occurred our first night in Rome, when we decided to gather for our night prayer at St. Peter’s Square instead of at the hotel chapel. As we began praying the Liturgy of the Hours, a flock of white birds flew overhead. After the prayer, we spontaneously began singing praise and worship songs, and several bystanders joined us. We know that the Holy Spirit was with us and with the others in the Square that night, and we have affectionately dubbed that experience “the Holy Flash Mob.” This experience foreshadowed all the blessings that would bombard us once we arrived in Madrid!
Madrid overwhelmed us with its atmosphere of celebration and connectedness. We participated together in the opening Mass, the Papal Welcome, Stations of the Cross and the Papal Mass, and in smaller catechesis (teaching) sessions and cultural activities in multiple languages. The million-plus pilgrims at World Youth Day came together from various backgrounds, united in celebration of our Catholic faith — a faith that transcends gender, age, culture, economic status and language. May we each share the message of hope with those around us.
Lori Seelhoff is parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park.