Esta es la juventud del papa!

“We are the youth of the pope!

That was the chant, in Spanish, all throughout the airfield where Pope Benedict XVI joined us in a prayer vigil on Saturday night and Mass on Sunday morning to bring World Youth Day 2011 to a close.  We endured rain and wind, powerful enough that demolished the tent chapels arranged around the field, delayed adoration, and ruined the hosts that would be used for Mass the next morning.  Despite that, though, we were again being living witnesses to what it means to be Catholic, to be the universal Church.  The 1 million people, the multitude of languages, praying together as the Body of Christ, drove home that point as nothing else could.

– John Smestad Jr.

Reflections at the half-way point

Today marks the halfway point of our pilgrimage here at World Youth Day in Madrid.  As early blogs have mentioned, our initial travel had many delays and disruptions and left many frustrated; we all had to offer it up in prayer, and be grateful that we were safe, although late.  Lost luggage, seemingly endless crowds, and lines without end -for food, for the subway, for water.  Did I mention the heat?  Imagine waiting for the Endymion parade in New Orleans, but instead of a cool February or March, you’re waiting for that parade in August for several hours.

I came to realize though, that these were challenges to be overcome, because if I let them drain my energy or enthusiasm, then God’s purpose in our being here would be lost.  And what is that purpose?  To be witnesses to the world that the Catholic Church is young and vibrant, despite what the secular culture and media might say.  It is also to see first-hand how universal the Church, in a way that no book or video or photograph can convey.

It is this universality that is the most important lesson for me so far this week.  All of us experience church at our parish, in our diocese, and in a certain comfort zone of spirituality.  When we fail to journey outside those environs, we can easily assume (sometimes with a self-righteousness that would have impressed the Pharisees) that our practice and expression of Catholicism is the only way -whether that be our style of prayer, our favorite saints, our preferred church movement, how we like our liturgical music, etc.  Being here at World Youth Day reminds me in a powerful way that the Church is a very big place, a very big community.  The pope shepherds a worldwide flock – the Church in the United States is just one of those communities.  The Body of Christ knows no boundaries.  Here, we can all agree on the truths that the Church teaches, and seek an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  Here in Madrid, it is clear that those are the essentials, and that the rest is “straw,” as St. Thomas Aquinas would say.  To see the multiplicity of religious orders each with their own charism, the diversity of prayer styles, more languages that I can count, ecclesiastical movements from centuries to just years old can only serve to remind that the Holy Spirit is indeed active.  God speaks to each of us in a way that he knows we will uniquely recognize in our souls.  As Catholics, we need to respect that uniqueness.

After three days of catechesis, opportunities to meet and talk with fellow pilgrims from all over the world, and absorb that universal Church, we prepare tomorrow for the vigil and Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.  We bring you here in prayer with us, and ask you to keep us in your prayers as well.

John Smestad, Jr.