Thousands of pilgrims celebrate despite being denied access to Papal vigil & mass
By Mari Alvarez
1.5 million people attended the 2011 World Youth Day (WYD) Papal vigil and mass in Madrid, Spain, but I was not one of them. Despite travelling from Canada and holding valid passes purchased a year in advance, our group of 67 pilgrims from Sacred Heart Parish in Uxbridge, Ontario was denied entrance into the grounds due to an error that left nearly 20,000 pilgrims with valid entry passes stranded outside the grounds.
“The grounds are full. The gates are closed” we were informed by the guards without further explanation. We looked around and realized that we had been diverted with the rest of the multitude into an overflow holding ground originally planned to hold the thousands of pilgrims who would arrive without passes to the grounds. Another stranded group from Mexico explained to us, “We have passes too. We have been waiting for two hours. It’s a disaster. The system failed and the grounds are at capacity. They can’t let anyone else in for safety reasons -people would get crushed.” We looked around at the desert-like wasteland around us and realized that this was it. We could either spend the vigil here and watch it on the giant screen or fight our way through the multitude to go in search of a hostel to spend the night. We decided to stay, but our troubles were not over yet. We soon realized that we had also lost access to our meals and would be spending the night hungry. A few hours later, some of the volunteers, sympathetic to the plight of the pilgrims outside, began to pass food over the fence. The situation resembled a refugee camp and for the first time in my life, I had a taste of what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence. On the one side of the fence was the promise land (an organized space with grass and tarmac and all the provisions we required) and on the other side was the desert (a field of dirt where we would go hungry). A double barbed wire fence patrolled by police separated the one from the other and we were on the wrong side. The situation was tense, with some pilgrims trying to force their way in, but the vast majority accepted their lot and sat in groups, praying, singing and continuing to celebrate with un-dampened spirits. Not even the lighting storm that followed drove them away.
In the midst of all these difficulties, I was challenged to turn to my faith for meaning. It has always been in the times of my life that I have suffered the most that I have felt closest to God. Perhaps it’s because at these times, by heart is most open to Him. Through secular eyes, the evening was a complete failure, but through the eyes of faith, there is good to be found even in the midst of affliction. My grandmother used to say, “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” It is Spanish for, “There is nothing bad that does not come for a greater good.” Although our experience of the Papal Vigil and Mass was not what we had expected, it was exactly what we needed. As Canadians, we have grown up on the “right” side of the fence; in a first world country where justice, comfort and security are the norm. Most of the world has not been so blessed. This experience opened my eyes and left a deep and lasting impression on me of what life is like on the other side of the fence.
In the introduction to YOUCAT, the special youth catechism book that all the WYD pilgrims received as a gift from the Holy Father, Pope Benedict says: “You need God’s help if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless.” This experience helped me to grow in a deeper understanding of those words; in particular in understanding that as privileged citizens of the promise land of the first world, we cannot ignore the plight of those who are on the other side of the fence in the developing world. They are fellow members of the body of Christ to which we all belong.
The theme of WYD was, “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.” A garden needs to be weeded before flowers can be planted. Likewise, vice (weeds) need to be uprooted from the soul before virtues (flowers) can be planted. I believe that this experience served as a kind of “weeding” for our souls to uproot the vices of greed, gluttony, consumerism and individualism that plague us in the first world so that the virtues of charity and true love of neighbour could be planted. It was not what we expected, but we accepted it joyfully and managed to even sing in the rain. May God be praised forever and ever. Amen.
Mari Alvarez is a teacher at Sacred Heart CSS in Newmarket. She travelled as a leader to WYD11 with the pilgrim group from Sacred Heart Parish in Uxbridge, Ontario.