Pilgrims persevere despite storms


WORLD YOUTH Day pilgrims struggled against wind, rain and lightning storms in Madrid overnight on Saturday during an outdoor vigil and Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI and attended by more than a million people.

Even the Pope was affected, briefly losing his zucchetto (the white hat he wears) in the high winds midway through the vigil.

The sudden change in weather after sundown was a cruel twist of fate following, as it did, a scorching day where pilgrims had chased fire trucks circling inside the Cuatro Vientos Aerodrome just to be sprayed with cool water.

Temperatures had reached 40 degrees at one stage in the afternoon and some 700 people suffered from heat-related problems, according to medical teams.

All that changed as the Pope took to the altar at 9pm when the winds that blew in the storm reached such a high level that one of the temporary chapels on the site collapsed, injuring several people.

As the rain poured down, makeshift shelters were being hastily constructed all around using air mattresses, plastic sheets, security barriers and anything else pilgrims could lay their hands on to keep themselves and their belongings dry.

“Pretty much everywhere you looked there were patches of lightning and then this horizontal rain started, so umbrellas were no use – not that we had any,” said Maeve Delargy (23), from Mount Merrion in Dublin.

After a break, during which Pope Benedict had to leave the altar, the vigil continued and the festival-like atmosphere that had permeated the event throughout the week returned, despite the occasional showers.

“The more important thing is that everyone is here and that everyone is in the same spirit – it is about a community atmosphere and that’s what we have now,” said Síofra Kelly (23), also from Mount Merrion.

Anna Keegan, youth evangelisation officer with the Dublin Archdiocese, was attending her fourth World Youth Day and described the vigil with the Pope as the absolute highlight every year.

“It is a really spiritual feeling and the sense that there is something bigger out there, you can really feel it at the vigil,” she said.

The size of the crowd was breathtaking, stretching as far as the eye could see. Flags from countless countries and dioceses dotted the skyline throughout Saturday and yesterday.

Crossing the aerodrome – the size of 48 soccer pitches – was a tricky task on Saturday night, as seemingly every scrap of space was covered by pilgrims with their sleeping bags as they waited overnight to hear Benedict’s Mass yesterday morning.

For the almost 800 young pilgrims from Ireland, the final Mass yesterday marked the end of their week-long pilgrimage to the Spanish capital.

“[My beliefs] have grown a bit stronger. The catechesis [religious lectures and discussions] have helped more than anything else, you get to hear points of view of the people who are the heads of the church – I suppose I came over with doubts and scepticism and I think I’m leaving with a clear head,” said Andrew Smith (19), from Swords in Dublin.

Aoife Connors (24), from Stradbally, Co Waterford, said: “The whole week has been a wonderful experience. The catechesis are probably the essence of it – you are getting great energy from it and a bit of inspiration.

“The highlights of World Youth Day are the international events where you are with a million other pilgrims from all over the world and the one thing that is uniting you all is your faith,” she added.

A common theme mentioned by many of the Irish pilgrims was the freedom they felt all week to openly celebrate their religion, something they did not feel as comfortable about at home.

“In Ireland,among some groups of young people, there is this stigma attached to [Catholicism] where as here it is totally embraced and encouraged – you don’t stand out because of it,” said Emily Connors (19), from Stradbally, Co Waterford and younger sister of Aoife.

As the even was primarily a celebration, few of the hard questions facing the future of the church were answered this week, and protests by secularist dominated headlines. Nonetheless, the energy on display must give heart to church leaders who are so often stumbling from crisis to crisis.

“The highlight for me has been seeing all these young adults from all over the world and particularly Ireland where there is often a picture of the church being finished,” said Fr Tony Coote, from the Mount Merrion and Kilmacud parish in Dublin. “To see their enthusiasm, and that they are not afraid to be here [is great]. What is it that has attracted them here that others haven’t heard about yet? That’s what I have found the most interesting.”