Where Am I?
Going into the trip, I began to assess my expectations and open myself to what would happen. I expected to see beautiful buildings and places, but was surprised by the relationships I was able to build with the fellow pilgrims. Since our pilgrimage was composed of groups of College Knights of Columbus from across the country, each person only knew a few other guys. The thought of traveling through a foreign country with strangers left me anxious as we boarded our flight for Spain. This began to dissipate with each day. First, we enjoyed a week-long pilgrimage throughout northern Spain investigating the history of the Catholic Church in the area. We spent time touring the basilica at Zaragoza, where St. James saw Mary appear to him in the first century and where, in the 18th century, Bl. William Jospeh Chaminade would experience a vision inspiring him to found the Society of Mary (Marianists). We also celebrated Mass at the cave in Manresa where St. Ignatius of Loyola composed the Spiritual Exercises, as well as toured St. Dominic’s hometown of Caleruega. From there, our group returned to Madrid ahead of the official beginning of WYD. This prelude was disorienting with jet lag, long bus rides, and language differences, but it served to dispel my anxiety about the fellow pilgrims. While I saw beautiful sights and buildings, I was surprised by how quickly I could form friendships with fellow pilgrims through shared experiences like hiking through the mountains or enjoying copious amounts of coffee.
What Is World Youth Day?
With the official beginning of WYD, I attempted to make sense of each day as it came, but it became apparent that there was no “typical day” during WYD. As a volunteer with the Knights, we were given tasks and duties to facilitate the events at the center for English-speaking pilgrims. On any day, we were asked to set up exhibits, take away shipping materials, serve as escorts to visiting bishops and dignitaries (which included a bear hug from Cardinal Dolan of NYC!), or simply assist with any of the events taking place. Far and away my most vivid memories are of greeting the groups of pilgrims each morning. Early in the morning, we would see groups marching in their matching shirts and chanting tunes to keep moving. As these multitudes assembled, I would take a few graced moments to exchange stories and sometimes a snack, including an adventurous tasting of Vegimite. While I thought a routine would emerge as the days passed, each day left me disoriented with so many experiences to process. For me, WYD was marked by conversation. During the week, I remember taking time to enjoy meals with my fellow pilgrims. More than physical nourishment for our tired bodies, these meals were chances to spiritually nourish ourselves and continue to process all that we had experienced. Whether in the form of homilies, talks, prayers, or actual conversation, WYD was experienced through dialogue.
Where Am I Going?
My memories from the end of the experience are a blur of packing, driving, and waiting in an airport. As I transitioned, the task became to explain this experience to others who had not been there. While it appeared impossible to summarize the experience, the salient moments were enough to communicate with friends and family. Of course, I did not experience visions as some of the saints I had prayed with had, but the pilgrimage did strengthen me in my resolve to live out the messages of the Gospel. As I returned, it was helpful to continue conversations with friends, spiritual directors, and to journal. The written thoughts, especially, provide perspective on the experience as the years pass on. At this point, five years have passed, and the single word to describe my experience is still “home.” Even as I was transported thousands of miles across an ocean, I was at home celebrating a faith that is truly universal. I was at home celebrating a faith I had known all my life, but now felt more personal. I was at home with friends, new and old, who continue to inspire and strengthen me in faith.
The pilgrimage continues to stand out among my spiritual experiences because of how densely packed the trip was. Each hour was packed with places to see, people to hear, or opportunities for prayer. Many opportunities for growth stemmed from an openness to meeting new people and sharing my faith. The next time you hesitate to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation with someone, go for it. When you consider whether dinner with fellow pilgrims is really more valuable than sleep, go for it. After WYD, when the chance comes to answer another call that might take you far away from your comfort zone, go for it.