World Youth Day is not a vacation.
We had been warned of this ahead of time. Our very nice hotel had a pool, and during the question and answer session with our travel leaders, someone asked, “Should we pack a bathing suit?”
“You can,” was the answer, “but you probably won’t have time to use it.”
Why? Because World Youth Day is a pilgrimage, not a vacation.
It means seeing the sun rise when you really want to be sleeping.
It means going hungry and being thirsty.
It means praying when you don’t feel like it and being pushed by crowds and overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of 1.5 million people.
It means growing beyond oneself and one’s needs.
It is saying yes to the opportunities, mercy, and love Christ gives.
It’s sharing your last sandwich with a fellow pilgrim and offering shade to a stranger.
It’s respectfully staying silent while the Pope speaks, even though you don’t have a clue what he’s saying (and then cheering as loudly as you can because he’s El Papa).
It’s crying during the Way of the Cross and availing of the Sacraments.
It’s something so powerful that for the last two weeks I’ve been scratching my head, wondering how to explain it and what it did to me. Thankfully Hurricane Irene came for a visit and knocked out my power, so I had even more time to ponder my experience.
As I left for World Youth Day, I went with a prickly heart, hoping for something wonderful, but inwardly very afraid of getting nothing out of the pilgrimage. For the past year or so, I’ve been quietly struggling to believe that God has a plan for me. As others moved forward with their lives, whether in relationships, jobs, apartments or homes, my life had remained the same (and has sometimes taken steps backwards), despite my very fervent desires and prayers for positive change.
On the second day of the pilgrimage, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, who traveled with my group, taught us a simple song:
The joy of the Lord will be my strength.
I will not waver walking by faith.
I am surrounded by mercy and grace.
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
My heart constricted in pain. I hadn’t felt joyful in the Lord in a long time, and I dreaded having to sing this song over and over for the next few days. But, that night as I lay in bed, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It played on repeat through the night, and I woke up humming it.
The following days were a blur of sessions at the Love and Life Centre, Morning Prayer with my group, spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, cheering for Pope Benedict, participating in Mass, and making friends with other pilgrims in the streets. I joined in a dance circle of Spanish pilgrims, traded knickknacks with South Koreans, and brushed up on my rudimentary Italian when squished against a group from Tuscany in the Metro. Every pilgrim exuded such happiness despite being tired, hungry, and constantly thirsty. By the end of the week, my heart felt stretched. I’d observed the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal who never complained and constantly died to self. I’d listened to my fellow pilgrims share the way Christ was present in their lives. I’d joined the roar of support and love for Pope Benedict XVI. And I was finally eager to raise my voice and sing.
My heart felt totally light and full for the first time in months. The small fence I’d built around it had been demolished by the Holy Spirit, who was strongly present at World Youth Day. Every session spoke of a God who knows us, loves us, and provides for us, things I was desperate to believe again. I laughed when I opened the YOUCAT for the first time and wound up at this quote from St. Augustine: “He who made you knows what he wants to do with you.” It didn’t hurt my heart to agree and to surrender. Yes, Lord, you know me and you love me. I believe.
World Youth Day was so powerful not because it was an energizing encounter with a million young Catholics, but more importantly, because it was an encounter with the Lord. In the midst of 1.5 million people, He spoke personally to me.
I didn’t need a vacation. I needed a pilgrimage, and I’m so glad that’s exactly what World Youth was.