Ten years of WYD in Madrid: a manifestation of faith for Spain and the world

On the tenth anniversary of World Youth Day in Madrid, we recall the chronicle of those days that were a spiritual earthquake for Spain and the world.

Enrique Carlier-August 16, 2021-Reading time: 12 minutes
WYD Madrid. Mass in Cuatro Vientos with Pope Benedict XVI.

The beneficial effects of the great spiritual earthquake that passed through Spain ten years ago are still being felt. Madrid, its epicenter, was flooded by almost two million young pilgrims. There were, however, no casualties or incidents. And it was an unforgettable week for this new generation of Benedict XVI who thoroughly enjoyed their encounter with Christ, with the Pope and with the wonder of the universality and communion of the Church. 

Ten years have passed since that World Youth Day (WYD). It is no longer the time to go back over what everyone was able to follow live, either on television or by reading the press. It is time, rather, to take stock and draw conclusions about what this great event of grace has brought us. -which finally exceeded all forecasts- has meant for the life of the Church and, in particular, for Spain, the host country.

Pope's balance sheet

On August 24, Benedict XVI, already at Castelgandolfo, made his own personal assessment of WYD. He emphasized that WYD had been a "An unforgettable celebration, a wonderful manifestation of faith for Spain and for the world", where youth had been able to "to reflect, dialogue, exchange positive experiences, pray together and renew the effort to dedicate one's life to Christ".

He also stressed the "A formidable experience of fraternity that was joyfully lived there by some two million young people". And he remembered how that The "crowd of young people in celebration was not at all intimidated by the rain or the wind". 

Cardinal Rouco's assessment

On August 23, the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, also gave his personal assessment. He said that the WYD had been, above all, "a great feast of faith - and of the joy born of faith - of the young people of the Church".in which "The witness of Christ has been given in enormous dimensions and intensity". 

On the Day, the Archbishop of Madrid added, "We experienced in a very special way the communion that exists within the Church; we saw so many young people living a communion in faith, hope and charity. Then it became visible in giving and sacrificing for one another".

He stressed that the Madrid edition "has reinforced the conviction that these Days are already part of the life of the Church, as an instrument for the mission of the Church in the evangelization of young people.". He also stressed that more priests have participated than in any other WYD (about 15,000), almost doubling the previous numbers, especially young clergy. The number of cardinals and bishops (800) has also been higher.    

The WYD of confession

With approximate statistical data, Cardinal Rouco Varela confirmed to this journalist that WYD Madrid could well go down in history as the WYD of confession: "In the 200 confessionals installed in the Retiro Park alone, more than 40,000 faithful confessed".he said. "And counting confessions in Madrid parishes, places of catechesis, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and, of course, in Cuatro Vientos." (particularly around the 17 Eucharistic tents-chapels), "the figure may reach several hundred thousand". 

At no other WYD had the young people come so close to the sacrament of Reconciliation as at this one. The daily celebration of forgiveness in the Retiro Park was certainly one of the greatest successes of the organizing committee. The Pope's visit to the site on the morning of the 20th to hear the confessions of four young people also highlighted the Holy Father's interest in making the practice of the sacrament of Confession an integral part of World Youth Days.

Some priests, noting the steady stream of penitents during WYD, concluded that perhaps the practice of confession is not always a problem for the faithful. Indeed, as was the case at WYD, when there are plenty of priests available to hear confessions, many young people come in droves. 

Two Colombian priests set up portable confessionals in Cuatro Vientos. After attending to several penitents in that area, someone from their group came to request their presence. They were then seen walking through the crowd with the confessionals on their backs.

Antonio, another priest who was hearing confessions at Cuatro Vientos, told a young penitent from the Canary Islands that he too was from the islands. The boy then brought the whole group that had come with him from the Canary Islands to confession. 

Emilio Úbeda, the carpenter and cabinetmaker from Avila who made the 200 confessionals of the Retiro, based on a design by the architect Ignacio Vicens, showed "very proud as a Catholic" of their contribution to this feast of forgiveness; and also of the fact that "Benedict XVI will use a confessional made by him."The confessional was, by the way, somewhat different from the others, to ensure even more the reserved character of the sacrament.

The Archbishopric of Madrid rightly granted license to all priests so that during the days of WYD in Madrid they could remit, within the sacrament of penance, the excommunication of the priests. latae sententiae corresponding to the crime of procured abortion. The Apostolic Penitentiary also granted plenary indulgence to all the faithful who participated in any sacred celebration or act of piety in Madrid during WYD.

Prayer climate

Along with the phenomenon of confessions, the intense climate of prayer during some moments of WYD caught the attention of many. Both locals and strangers were overwhelmed at the Vigil on Saturday night, the 20th, by the thunderous silence that fell at Cuatro Vientos when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in the majestic monstrance of Arfe. One and a half million people knelt in adoration on the damp earth. Rarely has it been possible to see such a multitudinous Exposition with the Blessed Sacrament.

In a sector at the back of the airfield, the young people were unable to see or hear the Pope: the nearby screen and the public address system were out of order. However, they prayed with great intensity before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the nearby tents-chapels, from 11:00 am until after 2:00 am.     

The climate of prayer in the uninterrupted adoration held at the Madrid Seminary was similar, as well as in the retreat chapel run by the Missionaries of Charity and in other places in Madrid. 

WYD during Holy Week

With the help of Spanish imagery and the deep-rooted traditions of popular piety that are experienced during Holy Week, WYD Madrid made it very easy for the young people to enter into the atmosphere of the Stations of the Cross, which is that of the Passion of Christ, on Friday the 19th. It was another of the great successes of the organization. In the vicinity of Paseo de Recoletos, not only the young pilgrims of WYD, but also a good part of the population of Madrid gathered.

Victor, a young professional who had not yet seen the Pope up close, invited three of his friends - one of them a senior manager in a large multinational company - to see him pass through the Plaza de Colón and then, after the Stations of the Cross, to watch the Easter processions. They were also joined by the girlfriend of one of them. During the wait at Colon, the conversation revolved around the figure of the Pope and some aspects of the Church's doctrine. Everyone was very receptive: they were moved and pleasantly surprised by the crowd of young people.     

The WYD of social networks

WYD in Madrid has also stood out in other aspects. It has been, for example, a very mediatic WYD, not in vain were 5,000 journalists accredited to cover the event (2,900 Spaniards). In Spain alone, 15 million television viewers followed the WYD events (34 % of the audience).

The Madrid WYD was undoubtedly the WYD of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Tuenti). No previous WYD has ever been so thoroughly employed to be present in these communication channels. Nearly 350,000 Internet users followed WYD through social networks. The official WYD profiles appeared in more than twenty languages. In the seven channels that WYD had at its disposal in YouTube video sharing has surpassed 1.2 million views. 

The WYD of the crisis

WYD Madrid was also characterized by the fact that it was held in a context of severe economic crisis, with very high youth unemployment figures. Perhaps that is why some groups were very reluctant to organize the event and were stubbornly opposed to the State financing it at least minimally. This opposition did not make much sense, because the WYD Organizing Committee and the public administrations involved (the State, the Autonomous Community and the Madrid City Council) had already foreseen that WYD would not entail any cost for the taxpayer. 

The unquestionable success of the event ended up overcoming these misgivings: it became evident that WYD had not only not entailed any expense for the administrations, but had generated wealth. 

According to the regional government's calculations, the WYD represented an increase of 148 million euros in the regional GDP. The Confederation of Commerce of Madrid estimated that of the tickets 39 million euros had been derived for the hotel and catering sector. Hotel occupancy on those days reached 70 %, 30 points above the same period of the previous year.

The Confederation of Businessmen of Madrid indicated that WYD had generated 3,000 direct jobs and 7,000 indirect jobs. 10.4 million trips were registered in the Madrid Metro (62 % more than the previous week and 4 million more passengers).

WYD in figures

    1.9 million people in Cuatro Vientos

    500,000 registrants (193 countries)

    30,000 volunteers

    14,000 priests

    800 bishops

    5,000 journalists

    4,000 disabled

    350,000 followers in social networks

    300 cultural events

    200 confessionals at the Retreat

    68 booths at the Vocations Fair

Of the 50.5 million euro budget for the Day, 31.5 million euro were covered by pilgrim registrations, mostly from abroad; 16.5 million euro were financed by sponsorships from private companies; and almost 2.5 million euro were financed by donations from private individuals, contributions by smssales of products and others.

Moreover, for people of faith, the use of economic means by the Church, when necessary, is quite understandable. Suffice it to recall the Gospel scene in which Jesus Christ himself consented in Gerasa that a huge herd of swine should rush into the sea after driving out a man's legion of demons. He put the spiritual good of that person first, even if it meant an economic loss for the herdsmen of the area. Because the order of grace comes before material goods.

Benedict XVI, moved

Cardinal Rouco commented that "Benedict XVI had lived those days with enormous intensity and joy." In many moments of WYD I had seen him visibly moved. He highlighted of all of them "the vigil at Cuatro Vientos; those 20 minutes of downpour: if anyone did not want to leave the young people despite the inclement weather, it was the Pope. He only wondered if perhaps he should shorten his address, because the wind prevented him from reading it."

Also during the Sunday Mass he saw the Holy Father very moved, "especially for those moments of recollection and silence". According to the Cardinal of Madrid, "the Pope was also pleasantly surprised by the music of the ceremonies; he became interested in the musicians of the WYD orchestra and choir, with an undertone of praise". Never before had a WYD organized its own orchestra and choir, made up of volunteers.

The Pope was also impressed to meet so many Madrilenians in the streets who had stayed in Madrid to see him. Cardinal Rouco commented that "On many occasions the popemobile drove at a very slow speed, so that Benedict XVI could spend more time with the people".

An encouraging and demanding father

Benedict XVI, now 84 years old, "he acted like a real father to everyone.". Yago de la Cierva, executive director of WYD, told an anecdote about this. A couple from Tenerife traveled to Madrid, coinciding with the WYD, to receive medical attention for their four-year-old son who was seriously ill. Although they had not planned it, someone encouraged them to go to the Nunciature. There, the Holy Father learned of the case and made time to receive them.

The messages that Benedict XVI addressed specifically to young people during his 78-hour stay in Madrid were simple, clear and demanding. As soon as he stepped off the plane, the Pope encouraged them to face the current challenges (superficiality, consumerism, hedonism, lack of solidarity, corruption and unemployment) by leaning on God, without anything or anyone taking away their peace; without any adversity paralyzing them, without fear of the world, the future or their own weakness.

He asked them not to be ashamed of the Lord and to base their lives on Him, who has always loved us and knows us better than anyone else. He warned them that it is not possible to believe without being supported by the faith of others; that the Church needs them, but they also need the Church; that it is not possible to follow Jesus alone and that, therefore, they must love the Church. He encouraged them to seriously consider holiness and to reject the temptation of believing themselves to be gods and to think that they have no need of roots or foundations other than themselves. 

Benedict XVI insisted to the young people that Christ's self-giving on the Cross calls for a generous response and means not turning a blind eye to the pain of others.  

He also reminded them that faith does not oppose the highest ideals; on the contrary, it exalts and perfects them. And he asked them not to settle for less than Truth, Love and Christ.

He called on the young people to remain in the love of Christ, because believing means entering into a personal relationship with Jesus and in communion with others. 

Finally, Benedict XVI asked young people not to keep Christ to themselves, but to communicate him to others; and to allow themselves to be led by the Lord to volunteer in his service.

A very special youth

Now it is up to the young people, once they have returned to their ordinary life, to respond to these requests of the Pope. During WYD, the great majority of them have given eloquent testimony, at least visibly, of their good disposition. Cardinal Rouco Varela suggested it when he underlined the testimony of kindness, of spirit of service, of coexistence that they had given, something that has been a characteristic of all the WYD. In none of them were there any alterations to the rules of coexistence. 

The cardinal emphasized that in Madrid progress had been made on this point, because although the pilgrims suffered provocations this time, "not even for that: at all times they behaved in a Christian spirit, without responding to provocations.".

Commenting on the absence of accidents and the small number of pilgrims who remained hospitalized in Madrid hospitals at the end of WYD (five in total, one with cancer who became ill upon arrival in Madrid), he also acknowledged that it had been noticed "God's special providence for WYD".

Young people, protagonists

For the Cardinal of Madrid and for many others, the most outstanding aspect of WYD was undoubtedly the young pilgrims themselves and the witness of faith and joy they gave from the moment they arrived until they left. 

De la Cierva commented that "some public personalities took to the streets, camouflaged with glasses and caps, to see with their own eyes the magnificent and comforting spectacle of this joyful youth that changed the face of Madrid for a few days.". Indeed, it was a sight to behold. This was, indeed, "the Pope's youth", as the young people themselves shouted with amusement; or "the generation of Benedict XVI", as the Archbishop of Madrid described them at the opening Mass of WYD. 

In summing up the intense days spent in Madrid, Yago de la Cierva emphasized the "the example of civility and capacity for suffering of the pilgrims and volunteers in the heat". On August 20, the young people had to deal with "on the hottest day of the summer and in the hottest place in the community of Madrid". 

However, Juan, a university student and volunteer in one of the chapel tents, was always attentive so that the six or seven priests who spent hours confessing on the sides of the altar could drink water from time to time. One priest asked another priest in surprise where these extraordinarily helpful volunteers, who also encouraged people to come to confession, had been trained.

Despite the heat, they did not lose heart. They even encouraged others. This was the case of two girls from Kazakhstan who, after praying in one of the tents, greeted a priest and a seminarian who were there, quite tired, and after making use of the universal language of smiling, gave them each a "mini-book" with colored beads.   

The exemplary behavior of the young people has made it possible to "no incidents were recorded at Cuatro Vientos, a remarkable fact given the enormous number of people who had gathered there". and that the airfield evacuation was carried out with surprising speed and order.

It is not excessive that the Sámur attended to 2,500 young people during WYD, taking into account the hot conditions in which it took place and the extraordinary number of participants. Those responsible for the Sámur had commented in this regard that it was the largest and longest event they had ever had, and that they did not attend any case of ethyl intoxication of any young person at WYD.

A WYD with news

The WYD in Madrid was also the occasion for the Holy Father to communicate his decision to declare St. John of Avila, Patron of the Spanish secular clergy, a Doctor of the Universal Church. Benedict XVI took advantage of the Holy Mass he celebrated for 1,500 seminarians in the Almudena Cathedral to make this announcement.  

Also original with respect to other WYD were the meetings that the Pope held in El Escorial with 1,600 young religious and 1,000 young university professors. Cardinal Rouco, referring to these meetings, commented with amusement that, contrary to what it might seem, "university professors were less form-observant than the religious".

A fruitful WYD

Saturday, August 20. It is barely two hours before Benedict XVI joins the 1.5 million young people at the WYD Vigil. A young girl from Salamanca, looking like a schoolgirl, talks to a priest in one of the 17 chapels set up at the Cuatro Vientos airfield. She tells him that in October she will enter a cloistered convent in Huesca.

Anecdotes like this, not uncommon in WYD, lead us to think that the first fruits of these days, translated into vocations, have already begun to be harvested. This is corroborated by the vocational meeting that the Neocatechumenal Way convoked in the Plaza de Cibeles, on the afternoon of August 22. According to the Police, the meeting, already traditional in the WYD, gathered 210,000 people. Kiko Argüello, initiator of the Way, surrounded by almost a hundred cardinals and bishops, had asked for 20,000 vocations needed to evangelize China. He prayed and asked for prayers that God would raise up these vocations. He then encouraged those who felt God's call to stand up and come to the podium. A veritable flood of young people (5,000 boys and 3,200 girls) did so. It was a very moving moment. Of course, these young people will now begin an itinerary of discernment of their vocation.    

And now what?

Yago de la Cierva expressed his conviction that WYD will be a great success. "Now is the time to read and reread the beautiful messages that the Pope has left us, to develop the vocational questions that many have asked themselves during these days, to incorporate the practice of confession, which many have approached during these days, into their regular Christian life".

The authorEnrique Carlier

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