Blisters on my feet, sweat down my back, sunburn on my nose, bruises on my legs, cross around my neck, and a song in my heart: this is how I returned to JFK International Airport after spending 11 days (Aug. 12 to 23) in Madrid, Spain for 2011 World Youth Day.
The trip consisted of three days at Madrid’s Colegio Santa Francisca Javier Cabrini with people representing the various provinces and regions of the worldwide institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; six days exploring Spanish culture and my faith; and two days at airports. Throughout the trip, I thought in Spanish, communicated in “Spanglish,” sang in Latin, and shared in Christ.
Ultimately, World Youth Day was a journey to prove to myself the strength of our Church in the youth, and the ability to shatter language and cultural boundaries in the name of our Lord.
The theme of this year’s World Youth Day event came from Colossians 2:7: “Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.” And while I could spend days recounting the many simple ways I saw the Holy Spirit working during my time in Madrid, I’ll just share a couple of anecdotes and the lessons taken from them.
The first event to really speak to me was Adoration. My prayers that evening were very intense, and made me think more about my vocation in life and what God has done for me throughout the past few years. Sitting next to me in the Church was a young man who also seemed overwhelmed with the Spirit. As a sign of solidarity, I wanted to give him my white wristband that has “iPray” embossed on it, hoping it might be of as much comfort to him as it has been to me. However, when I looked over to say a few words of support, he was gone.
Just as my disappointment began to sink in, I looked down at the pew and saw waiting for me the bracelet he had been wearing, placed so specifically by my water bottle and fan that I am sure he didn’t leave it by mistake. In a place so far from home, God sent me consolation in a nameless follower of Christ. Even if he had spoken a different language, his actions spoke words so universally Christian that conversation would have seemed superfluous.
God sent me something else during my trip to Madrid: a challenge. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read an account of Jesus walking on water, urging Peter to take courage and walk to Him: “Peter got down out of the boat … But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out His hand.” (14:29). After receiving special access to sit just 18 rows from the Holy Father during the Saturday night vigil, I found myself roaming a field of two million people, looking for my group. Unfortunately, it was pitch black at midnight, and my search was in vain. I spent hours straining my eyes, desperately trying to pick out the purple shirts of my group.
I prayed: “Lord, help me not to despair; help me trust that you will part this sea of sleeping bags and find me my group.” Hours later, my prayer became more desperate: “Lord, I have nowhere to sleep; no one around me speaks my language. Help me!” At that point, I’d never felt more alone. But then, a group of people from England, who were also staying at Santa Francisca Javier Cabrini Colegio, offered me a spot on their tarp, a towel to use as a pillow, and foil to keep me dry and warm. Even as my faith was tested, Jesus came to me in the form of a British woman telling me not to fret, giving me the strength to get through the night.
Our last catechesis session was directed by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. Befitting a send-off session, his talk focused on our Catholic call to be “light to the world” when we return from Spain. He said, “The love for Jesus and the Church must be the passion of our lives.” This sentiment resembles the Cabrinian motto: “All for the greater glory of the sacred heart of Jesus.”
If I learned one thing from World Youth Day, it was to be a proud and visible sign of the Church. The flag I wave doesn’t matter — what matters is that I have the ability to practice my faith in that country. The food on my plate doesn’t matter — what matters is the God I thank for providing me with something to eat. The language I speak doesn’t matter — what matters is that I’m spreading the Word of God in my native tongue.
You feel something, looking around a field of people praying the rosary. You may not understand their language, but you understand the prayer in their hearts. Trying to communicate with Russians, Argentineans, and South Americans could have been overwhelming. Instead, it was an opportunity to get to the root of what we believed. I thank those with me at World Youth Day, those praying for us at home, and those who have supported me and my companions on a journey of a lifetime. May you find peace in knowing that we have come home alive in our faith, ready to make disciples of nations.