Guestview: World Youth Day, from carnival atmosphere to silent prayer

August 18, 2011

(Pilgrims wait for the start of the World Youth Day’s opening mass at Madrid’s Cibeles Square August 16, 2011. Up to a million pilgrims are expected to attend various events during the week, culminating in Pope Benedict’s visit to Spain from August 18-21/Susana Vera)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Jo-Anne Rowney is a young journalist and pilgrim attending the World Youth Day in Madrid with the Diocese of Westminster (London).

By Jo-Anne Rowney

World Youth Day has officially begun! It’s been a week since our group from London first arrived in Spain. Back then, hot and tired, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the events that we’d experience and the amazing atmosphere we’re part of.

The WYD events began with an opening Mass on the Plaza de Cibeles on Wednesday. There was a carnival atmosphere when we arrived in the square. Each nationality had its own flag and everyone was waving them until the sky became a sea of colour. Pilgrims wearing brightly coloured shirts, rosaries, crucifixes and their WYD badges filled the square over the next two hours. The square itself became so crowded people were shoulder to shoulder. The sun was right overhead, beating down on us so for the Londoners used to the rain and cold it was a bit of a change!

I soon met Filipino pilgrims had just arrived after 12 hours flight.  Imelda, from Manila said: “It’s like a carnival. Everyone has so much energy and there’s this buzz that I can’t put into words.” In the underground after the Mass, Imelda’s carriage was still in the party spirit: “There were chants of Viva la Papa! and songs being sung in many languages. We even sang the old WYD songs!”

Then silence. Once Mass began, a hush fell over the square. It’s an amazing sight and sound. when nearly half a million young people fall into complete silence before God.  The only sound during the Mass was the choir. Even more beautiful and amazing weres the pilgrims queuing for confession around the edge of the crowds, where open-air confessionals were set up in the parks nearby for pilgrims.

While some pilgrims are staying in hotels, others are camping out or have been bundled into school halls. Catherine, from the English Faith Movement said: “There’s about 70 of us in a hall, sharing minimal facilities. It’s a pilgrim experience in the truest sense. Just having the basics while we’re here to grow in prayer and faith.”

(Pilgrims walk inside a school that is hosting them on the second day of the World Youth Day meeting in Madrid August 17, 2011/Andrea Comas)

“It’ll all be worth it when the Pope arrives,” she assures me. “All we’ve been hearing are pilgrims asking each other where they’re going to wait for the Pope to go past. Some are going hours beforehand just to catch a glimpse of him. I heard more than 50,000 people are expected to line the streets!”

The streets are filled with WYD pilgrims. A Scout group have set up a campsite outside my hotel window. A Canadian group that were sleeping on the street endured a tiring flight and no dinner to make the opening Mass because they “wanted to be here, together with all the youth. Showing youth are present in the Church. Together in Christ!”

One pilgrim from Canada told me she felt “an opening of the heart and mind in Madrid” that she had never felt before. “There’s an acceptance of who you are. All your faults your failings. Seeing everyone ready for confession drew me in, and I found myself queuing wondering how I got here. WYD makes you braver. I struggle with confession at home, but here it just seems right. There’s no judgement of who you are, or what you’ve done.”

Dean, from Detroit said: “The mix of silence and stillness against the craziness of the Mass is unbelievable. There’s just you and God – with thousands of others in prayer. It’s a powerful moment when the shouting and cheering, the pure adrenaline drops away leaving you tingling with the joy of being here.”

Natasha Purcell from London couldn’t make it to the square for the opening Mass and ended up watching it on a big screen in a side street with her group. She told me how Canadian, American and English prayed together during the Mass. “None of us have met before, but it doesn’t feel like we’re strangers. There’s an understanding that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. One in Unity and spirit.”

(Pilgrims pray in Ana Mogas Chapel in Madrid, 12 August 2011/Jo-Anne Rowney)

My own pilgrimage echoes these feelings of unity and togetherness. My defining moment came during Adoration, time spent in silence before the Blessed Sacrament – Jesus himself. There was a sense that everything was really beginning.

During a talk earlier in the week we’d been told by Sister Paula, from Verbum Dei, that we should spend time in silence. “To listen to God calling you. He’s knocking. Listen to him” she  said. “Fall in love with God again … open your heart and just say God what do you want with me?”

In the stillness of the Mass, I found myself looking at Jesus, really looking at the crucifix above the altar. In that moment, Sr Paula’s words made sense to me. I felt that love again. A greater love than Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose on the Titanic. More than any relationship or friendship. I felt a great peace. I turned and looked at my fellow pilgrims to see if they’d felt the same thing. I was surprised to see some deep in prayer, others crying.


Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld

rss buttonSubscribe to all posts via RSS


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Dear Ms. Rowney,

Thank you for such a touching article !

I am from a country where Churches have been burned and Christians often have to face persecutions.

We aren’t even allowed to own the Holy Bible unless we let the power stamp it with the “Not For Muslim” chop in front!

Yet, we always feel strong, and the one-ness that you mentioned in your article, is always with us.

You see, God never abandons us.

He is with us all the time.

Posted by kalambong | Report as abusive

You’re welcome! Thank you for sharing, it’s empowering to hear about the faith in other countries, and that it continues even when facing persecution
God bless

Posted by JoAnneRowney | Report as abusive

Dear Kalambong

I believe we are from the same south east Asian country, where usage of the word Allah is banned for Christians.

I was at the Madrid WYD, and by the Grace of God, I was asked to share with some of the pilgrims from the US, on the challenges we faced in practicing our faith. Including Allah Issues, Church building, Bible Confiscation.

It was an emotional sharing, and people came up to us to thank us, and also to ask more questions. Many assured us of their prayers. Some even wondered how we were allowed to come to the WYD.

It was a beautiful to experience the unity of the Catholic Church, and how we stand in solidarity with Catholics around the world.

Posted by lkclee | Report as abusive