World Youth Day: the author tells all (with pictures)

Late post is late. -__- Sorry, guys. Over all these weeks a lot of things have happened around Hatfield, but particularly, Damian's departure to Allen Hall Seminary. Yep, right now, he's on track to become a priest, and I shall be keeping him in my prayers.

The fourteen of us in the team were Fr Mark Vickers, Fr Stephen Boyle, Damian Ryan, Michael McFadden, Peter Murphy, Stacey Hanifin, Catherine Porter, Mathilda 'Tilly' Scheuber, Jason Miseldine, Jack Devine, Jessie Hooper, Christina Désiré, Ryan Beddoe and myself. Our team was known as the UK Faith Movement. Fr Stephen, Jason, Jack, Jessie, Ryan and Christina formed one half of the team, representing Southwark, whilst the rest of us were either current members or alumni from the University of Hertfordshire. Joining us was also Manny Akpakwu, who could only stand by us as a visitor.

You'll notice that one of the most famous gestures in these pictures is the 'Lenny'. Michael tells us that a Celtic footballer, in response to all the booing he got during a match with the Rangers, did this gesture to show the spectators that he couldn't care less. This gesture involves putting your hands (or your fingers) over the back of your ears as if to close them.

And now, I present to you, the rest of my World Youth Day, in pictures. The videos will come later.

Day 1

Damian, Peter and I were given a lift to Stansted at 5-something in the morning, and so I had to wake up at 4:00. I only had three hours of sleep the night before... When we reached Stansted it was 6-something, nearly 7:00, and after checking in our baggage, we went on and had breakfast. And my, the things we discussed at breakfast — we'll have to leave all that for the videos, I think!

We left Stansted on an 8:25 Ryanair flight for Terminal 1 of Aeropuerto de Barajas in Madrid, and we arrived there at around 12:00 local time. Back there we were told to be careful of our belongings, and that we were going to stay in Colegia Maria Reina in Ascao, in the outskirts of Madrid. So we grabbed the Metro (the underground trains) and finally, after a few instances of switching lines and quite some time walking with painful feet and a heavy bag, found ourselves in Ascao. And I had the shock of my life:

  1. Colegia Maria Reina is not a boarding school, but a day school. Which meant that we had to sleep in the classrooms, and we had to use our sleeping bags from day one.
  2. The showers were outside, in the basketball court, with no cubicles. The doors leading to the area were made of glass, and therefore had to be covered.
I looked at a few of my friends in horror when I first found out about this. Then I thought, hey, this isn't gonna be too bad, is it? And no, it wasn't too bad. It was quite memorable, I'll say.

We also saw a distribution room for backpacks (yes, each of us received an official World Youth Day backpack) and breakfast. The backpack proper had, among other things, maps, a WYD guidebook, a pilgrim's booklet (which we would use for lauds and vespers, as well as masses), a sombrero-style hat and a fan (these come in red, yellow and orange — I had orange ones). Oh, and the YouCat: a version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church specially for youths. Funnest book ever. I took to reading it from day one itself.

Much of day one was pretty laid-back; we went and did some reconnaissance in Ascao. Across the road was the parish church, Parroquia de San Romualdo, where we attended daily mass. We went for lunch in one eatery whose name we've forgotten, and what a quandary we were in! I could only understand written Spanish (not Spanish spoken by the commonfolk, which is very, very fast), and so was the case with the rest of us, especially our team leader, Damian. Poor guy kept on saying 'no hablo español', and the exchange of words... um... gestures... between us and the shopkeeper at the till was extremely comical! We settled for jamón (Spanish cured ham) and calamari sandwiches, and after a good meal, we returned to Maria Reina.

I met a new friend from Kent, turned my PC on for a short while, played one round of Hangman with Stacey and Christina, and when Damian finally arrived, he gave us food vouchers and travel passes, marked by date. The travel passes included seven-day Metro boarding pass to all zones, as well as a set of bus passes — we reckoned we'd only use the Metro, and not the buses. As for the food vouchers, each of us were given a set of these vouchers, which could be exchanged for breakfast, or in selected restaurants with the WYD logo on their doors for a hearty lunch or dinner. Each voucher was marked by date.

We were also given a map of the eateries within Ascao. All of us decided that we were there for traditional fare, and so went to a restaurant called La Tasquita de Lola (remember that name; I'll be using that very often in this post). After that meal we had, we decided to go to that place nearly every single day during our stay in Madrid.

We came back to find many more people staying with us in Colegia Maria Reina. All in all, there were four groups: a group from Miami, a group from Malawi, a group from Leeds, and finally, us. I know that there were two classrooms for the girls — the people from Miami stayed in one, and the rest of us stayed in the other... Our group had people from the University of Hertfordshire chaplaincy, led by Fr Mark Vickers (who had not yet arrived), and a few others from the diocese of Southwark, led by Fr Stephen Boyle.

Later that night, we found out that Michael and Stacey were stranded in the city centre trying to find a good meal. Peter, Christina and I went to Sol... and that was the start of our adventure. We finally found them, made sure they had a good meal (whilst Christina and I had sangria), and looked around. I saw groups of WYD participants — really large groups — celebrating on the streets. The atmosphere was really joyful. Some of the people celebrating were our "children" — people from Ireland, the USA, Australia — and some were from other teams. Some were dancing, some singing, some drumming... and all this moved me. It made me think, for a while there, that none of us had actually brought a Union Flag.

Then at 12:45 a.m., went to Ventas, where the rest of us had chips and drinks, then Pueblo Nuevo, then finally, Ascao. We literally took what we believed to be the last Metro back to Ascao. And it was 2:00 a.m.

When we arrived at the gates, they were locked.

Poor volunteer had to wake up and let us in. And we were told that curfew was at midnight. We made sure never to forget this ever again!

Now, for the uninitiated, I must make mention of the heat levels over here. MADRID'S HEAT LEVELS ARE JUST AS BAD AS MALAYSIA'S HEAT LEVELS. PROBABLY WORSE. Peak temperature during the day can go up as high as 40-somethingºC. Having been acclimatised to British weather, I can honestly say that it's pure horror walking around at noon. But an hour or two before sundown, the heat becomes a lot more tolerable. I guess that's why they gave us the fans and the hats, eh?

Day 2

Tuesday. We woke up the next morning----


----to a harrowing experience in cold showers (and by cold, I really mean cold!), morning mass at 8:00 with Fr Stephen Boyle at San Romualdo and a hearty pain au chocolat back at the school. Damian soon left us for a short while to register for the papal mass for seminarians. I must make mention of one of the Prayers for the Faithful that day, because I actually wrote it down:

"For all those who seek God in the beauty of music, culture or any artistic expression, that they may remain rooted in the Christian faith that has inspired so many works of art throughout history. ..."
Pilgrim's Booklet, p22

That passage deeply moved me. I am a musician. Songs, both religious and secular, have moved me, and I comunicate best to others through songs. I was moved that they had a prayer for people in the artistic field. I could've cried, but I didn't. The Church, full of things old and new, does indeed support creative expression, and that it is full of old and new artistic treasures only proves it. I began to examine whether my music was for self-gratification — of late, it hasn't been the case.

The itinerary for the week leading up to the climax would begin on that day. When we came back, we decided that we would go for a talk on Blessed John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body'.

So after having breakfast, we made our way to the place where it was going to be held. And my, the queue. THE QUEUE. T_T We first decided to make our way through the back for some refreshments, since it was sweltering. (You'd be right in imagining that the cold showers did us a world of good!) And then, when we came out, the queue had already extended to two corners of the building. We decided to put up with it and wait. And when we finally got to the front, we wondered if all of us would get in, or if some of us would be left behind — they were running short on seats. Ultimately, all eleven of us could get in.

The talk addressed the issue that our sexualities are good — and especially so when done for the purpose that God has designed for it. Truly, in modern society, there are two viewpoints about sex. Westerners have turned sex into a casual thing, whilst for our Eastern brethren, because of the heavily sexualised messages and media coming from our end, they view sex as something 'dirty'. But used solely for its purposes and in the right place and in the right time, it can turn into something beautiful. They call it 'conjugal love' for a reason. And so we sat and listened. The talk itself was in a highly evangelical style, being for a worldwide stage. Every now and then it was intermitted with praise and worship, and montages to describe the beauty of love, the beauty of the theology of the body.

I'll admit, despite the lack of depth in that presentation, one beautiful thing I learned in the talk is about the word "seminary". That word, and the role of the man in marriage, stem from the fact that the man sows the seed (seminates), and the woman bears the fruit. The fruit in question is a child. In plant life, this is similar. The stamens form the seeds, and the ovaries bear the fruits. They are described as the 'male' and 'female' components of flowers respectively. This almost reduced me to tears. Damian, our seminarian friend, would be training to sow the seeds of love as a priest, to the community in Hatfield.

After the talk, we got caught up in a literal Hatafutte Parade. People of all nationalities were celebrating on the main streets — it was very colourful! Some stations were closed due to the traffic, and we had to take longer routes, stop at other stations and walk.

We greeted Fr Mark, Tilly and Catherine, who had just arrived, and we went back to La Tasquita de Lola that night for a drink. The subject of our discussion: one of our former UH Chaplaincy members, Jo-Anne Rowney, was going to give a talk on Friday about spreading God's message of love through social media. Now Jo-Anne has been a prolific writer, and was about to end her term with the Westminster diocese. How proud we were! ^_^ I soon realised that we've become well-known  throughout Britain, and it's all thanks to the Lord and to Fr Mark, Damian and the people of the previous committees. They've brought us to where we are today. This time, Damian will be in seminary, and the current committee (including myself O_O) will have to make UH CathSoc as active as it has always been.

I returned to Maria Reina with Fr Mark and shared 'Down the Tyburn Trail' with my Malawian friends. I even told them what a céilidh was, and shared one dance — the Galy Gordon (or is it Gay Gordons??). And later, just for kicks, I brought the Hucklebuck in. XD After all the dancing, we said a short night prayer together. And thus ended a tiring day.

Day 3

By this point my knapsack had already begun to tear because I brought my PC the night before. Oh drat! XD

We woke up and went for morning mass in San Romualdo, had breakfast, had lunch and took a few rides before winding up in Goya. We spent much of our time in the Love and Life Centre (which is otherwise Palacio des Deportes) in Goya. We were present for a number of catechesis sessions — one from the Sisters of Life, one from Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, and another from a panel of clergy and lay people about religious freedom. After the talks, there was mass, lunch break and more catechesis. But we knew that we couldn't stay for too long after the mass was over: that evening, there would be a mass for the Westminster archdiocese at Parroquia de San Bruno.

At around that time, I began to wonder where I was headed. I had so many questions. But only one thing was important for me: how to find out where God is calling me. Emotions overflowing, I asked Damian, and he told me something to this effect — look into the eyes of God, as a child would look into his father's eyes, without having to say anything; ask Him what He wants of me. And so I did, during that mass in the Love and Life Centre.

That afternoon, when we arrived at the doors of San Bruno, we initally thought that we couldn't get in just yet because a choir was rehearsing for a mass. Turned out that the choir actually came from Westminster! We went right in!

I went in and did as I was told. I wanted to just think of looking into His eyes. And at the time the choir was still practising. I began to cry... I cried all through my prayer before mass. The harder I tried, I felt as though I was dragged deeper and deeper into the music. I didn't know what this meant, and I was frustrated. I confided in Tilly, Stacey and Catherine. With their encouragement, I dried my tears and got ready to partake in the celebration of the mass.

The mass was attended by every participant from the dioceses of Westminster and Cardiff (yes, our Welsh brethren joined us too). The place was quite packed. Archbishop Vincent Nichols was there too. It was a great mass, and behind the church, there were WYD volunteers — many of whom only spoke Spanish — and it was great that they were there with us too. We had one of the concelebrating priests translate our message of thanks just for them, and it was just so nice. ^_^

And it's a pity I didn't take any pictures of this — you can't find any in the slideshow, but.... *LAUGHS*
The conductor of the Westminster choir was another dancing priest. Just two weeks after we split our sides laughing from two priests doing the Hucklebuck in the Faith Summer Conference in Surrey, we saw another actually moving his hips whilst conducting. Yeah..... I know. And in response to this, we have Peter's hilariously famous ditty: 'For the purposes of this song, let us refer to this Gospel as "Hips"'. The song Peter was referring to was Hips Don't Lie.

After mass was over, we made our way to Residencia Galdos (play on Glados?), the flats where most of the people from the archdiocese stayed. Those flats were in the city centre. It was nice to watch photos of the Westminster Team being taken. Also, there, Jo-Anne carried out a recorded interview of His Grace (if I'm not mistaken). Fr Mark was sitting on the floor like a certain Kingdom Hearts character (I only came across the picture recently!)

Still, even by that point I was frustrated. Extremely annoyed. I felt so powerless. It was a moment where I wanted to make a difference (that's something I know I'm capable of), but I couldn't do anything given the situation I was in. In a fit of anger, I slammed my WYD knapsack on the floor, covering everything — YouCat, guidebook, maps and all — in orange juice and water. Everyone helped me get going at that point, and I regained my composure for that night. Everything I had was wrapped in a plastic bag, whilst my knapsack was left to dry.

Fr Mark, Damian and Fr Stephen Boyle joined a few other chaplains that night, whilst the rest of us went around Goya searching for an eatery. Jo-Anne joined us for the first time today. And when we found one, we were given a hearty meal of pasta with a choice of either fish or chicken on the side. Catherine had it with a generous helping of veggies! ^_^ I was happy that we all had a hearty meal. We didn't want to go past curfew time again, so we went back together. Around 10, we left Goya and about an hour later, we returned to Ascao.

Back in the room, my Malawian friends rushed to hug me when they saw me. I was moved. I was just glad to bring them joy. I hugged them, and spoke to them for a while, transferred some pictures and crashed into my sleeping bag.

Day 4

I didn't take very many pictures of that day because of the amount of walking we had to do in the sweltering heat that day. Little did I know that it was just the beginning.

We got up, went for mass at San Romualdo, had breakfast, went to the Love and Life Centre, attended catechesis, had another mass, and then left. We went back to Ascao, back to La Tasquita de Lola for lunch, and we knew that something important was happening at the time. That day was Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Madrid. We watched the footage from Lola's; we saw a crowd of enthusiastic, happy young people cheering as they greeted the Holy Father on his arrival. There was also a dialogue with Spain's leaders that afternoon.

I'm writing at this point and I think the arrival was on Thursday. But if it was another day, please correct me! D:

After lunch we boarded the Metro again and ended up in Retiro. We went there to witness Pope Benedict's entry into the city centre. So we went through the Parques del Retiro (alternatively, Jardines del Retiro), and my, did we have to walk! Not only was it burning hot, the park was vast. Halfway through the park we stopped for ice-cream, and we used some of our coupons for ice-creams: if we bought a Magnum, we got another free of charge. I got mine from Damian, that I remember. ^_^  One of the priests we knew (I'm not sure if it was Fr Seán Riley or someone else...) passed by when we were at table, and he saw all of us having ice-cream. He commented that Fr Mark needed to be well-fed! *laughs* The next moment Michael commented that he had an extra ice-cream with him, and we gave that extra ice-cream to Fr Mark. Oh, what a happy priest he was!

After our ice-cream break, we walked. AGAIN. -__- And we ended up taking the same route that we entered into. I soon discovered that we had to wait at the grille near the entrance, because Pope Benedict would pass by close to the area. And so we waited.... for a good hour....... Around us were teams from Spain, from Southwark, from France, from a few other places. Fr Mark and all of us said vespers together, and some of us prayed the rosary while waiting. In the meantime, there were volunteers who delivered bottles of water to pilgrims, and where needed, hosed us down with water to cool us.

And then, there was sign of activity on the road before us. There were people in flamenco costumes on horses walking past us. And then I heard my favourite instrument: I heard drums from a military band. And the next moment, there was heavy police activity on the road. One or two pilgrims got over-enthusiastic that he attempted to bend over the grille (and it was high!), but he ultimately did not. Soon, even though we were far off the corner, we could see the Popemobile. My eyes lit up. Pope Benedict XVI WAS THERE!

We soon went to another part of the city centre for the Celebration of the Word (note: not a mass, because it did not involve the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It was only the Liturgy of the Word). It seemed as though all 1.5 to 2 million people had gathered in that area to celebrate. I was filled with awe. We heard the Holy Father's addresses to us, we joined in the liturgy, we sang the hymns, we just celebrated. All fourteen of us were far from where the Holy Father was, so we had to watch everything through a screen and a PA system. I sang with all my heart. I was so thrilled. And then, after the Celebration of the Word, a nun who was standing next to us beckoned to me and told me, in my ear (because of the almost deafening cheers around me)...

"You sing well."

My heart melted. I praised God for my voice that evening. I thanked her. At that point I probably didn't know whether to think that I was called to do something with this voice. But it didn't matter. After the celebration, we went on to find a place to have a meal. Fr Mark and I returned to Ascao. Everyone else went to Burger King or McDonald's (I don't know which one anyway), and that night, I did not have a meal at all. Oh well, it didn't matter. ^_-

Day 5

Today was the beginning of my highest point of WYD. It was also the day of my lowest point.

After getting up, getting sorted and going to the Love and Life Centre, going through a few sessions of catechesis, a mass and lunch break (whilst still in Goya), we reserved the front seats of the stadium to listen to the panel on spreading the word of God through social media. As I mentioned earlier, Jo-Anne Rowney was one of the panelists for the day. We were all excited. And we made sure that all of us (at least the people from the University of Hertfordshire, if not the people from Southwark) reserved the entire front row! I made sure to record her speech in its entirety.

I did note a few things in that panel:
  • The first speaker, a priest, was podcasting at the time when (then) Pope John Paul II passed away. He continued podcasting as he went around the Vatican, telling people what he saw, and the history behind them, but people knew he was evidently sad that Pope John Paul II died. And then, a few days later, he yelled with delight into the podcast, habemus papam! 'We have a pope!' He went on to tell us that one of his listeners yelled, in the middle of the night when listening to the podcast whilst everyone was sleeping, 'We have a pope!' and got scolded by his wife! *laughs* But yes... the emotion in podcasts and video recordings can be very appealing, and it can oftentimes speak to the heart.
  • Then after the second speaker, it was Jo-Anne's turn. Hers was mainly on the use of mobile Twitter. She had been blessed with the opportunity of meeting Pope Benedict XVI last year during his visit to Britain. She tweeted, early in the morning when the Holy Father paid a visit to the residence of Archbishop Nichols, that the Pope had arrived. Later, (was it Reuters?) in their reports said that 'a source has given us information that the Pope is now in the residence of Archbishop Nichols'... Jo-Anne says: "Oh, they're talking about meeeeeee." *smile* She was nervous, but she delivered her presentation beautifully. I knew, back then, that I had every reason to be proud to be a student of the University of Hertfordshire, and even more so, a member of the UH Catholic chaplaincy.
At that point in time I began to ask myself if everything I was doing - all the blogging, all the video coverage and photo-taking, all the delayed tweets - would have any place whatsoever in the hearts of people. In the situation I was in, I didn't have any data plan or mobile internet. All the internet I ever had came from the PC, and I obviously couldn't use it in Madrid because after 15 minutes, it overheated! Every single time! The sweltering weather added salt to the wound, because in that weather, without a cooling pad, that PC would easily overheat. I grew terribly exasperated over the fact that I couldn't cover it live, and that I didn't even settle for mobile internet at all. I felt that not settling for mobile internet was my biggest mistake ever. Soon, I was seething, and minutes after the presentation from the panel was over, everyone saw me at my worst.

After making amends, we went on to another part of the city centre for Via Crucis (Way of the Cross). One Canadian Jewish politician (whose name I do not remember) called this the 'Jesus parade' after World Youth Day took place in Toronto several years ago, because he did not know what the name was. It's been reported that witnessing the Via Crucis was the highest point of his political career, because there, he saw a multitude of fervent young Catholics joined together in prayer for the countries and the people who were suffering, carrying the cross together. There was an air of hope and happiness about it, he said. It seems he had no regrets saying that at all.

Damian, Tilly and I secured a place next to the kerb, whilst Fr Mark and the rest of us from Hertfordshire stayed behind. We were in front of Station 11. The other half of our team were in front of Station 14. And this bulleted list sums up what I saw and what I felt when witnessing the Via Crucis:

  • We waited whilst listening to songs from mainstream radio. Not the best choice of music that was, I'll admit. Even Damian was suffering. O_O And it was quite a wait. In the meantime, the drapes around the Stations of the Cross were removed, and we could see them.
  • Then, the orchestral music began. Police officers passed by the road before us. Then, the Popemobile. And that was the first time I saw Pope Benedict XVI face-to-face. I was well within proximity of him. Two years ago, when I was in Malaysian National Service and writing out my list of dreams (some of which I shall willingly scrap because I renounce all ties with some things that I have written), one of my most cherished points in that list of dreams was "to meet the Pope face-to-face". That day, I met the Pope face-to-face and I was filled with awe. I must put in the video for this... text will not suffice. You will soon see this in the video post for WYD. Pope Benedict XVI went ahead of us, all the way to Station 14, to preside over the Via Crucis.
  • I opened my Pilgrim's Booklet and relied on the translations for the Via Crucis. It was all carried out in Spanish, but the translations were available in the Pilgrim's Booklets. The Stations of the Cross had been slightly varied for WYD, this time including, among others, 
    • the Last Supper,
    • Judas' betrayal,
    • Peter's denial,
    • after Jesus' body was taken down from the cross, there was an extra station where Jesus's body was laid in the arms of his sorrowful Mother.
  • All in all, there were fourteen stations, and they did not follow the conventional order. The standard order of Stations of the Cross include three stations where Jesus falls under the weight of the cross. In the WYD stations, there was only one fall.
  • The cross was lifted by many people from countries who were suffering, or people who shared a common condition or predicament. That cross was made of solid wood, and it was a life-sized one. It took ten people to carry that cross. Leading them were people with lights on poles. We meditated on the sufferings of the crucified Christ, and after every station, there was a backing music track which gave further meaning to the meditation.
  • Stations 10, 11 and 12 were within our field of vision. They were, in this order: 10) Jesus is nailed to the cross, 11) Jesus dies on the cross, 12) Jesus is taken down from the cross.
    • When the cross arrived at Station 10, the music pierced my heart. On and off, we heard sounds as though nails were being driven. My thoughts turned back to several months ago, when The Passion of the Christ was screened in the hall of St Peter's Church in Hatfield. I cried watching Jesus being battered, mocked and scourged. I cried watching Jesus falling on the path three times. But the one scene that I could never bear to watch, because of the pain it gave me, was that of Jesus being nailed to the cross. The speakers were on, and even though I did not see any visuals, the sound was enough for me. Jesus willingly spread his arms and legs on the cross only to be tortured by the Roman soldiers. I cried back then, and when I heard the same nailing sound that day in Madrid, I almost cried.
    • Then came Station 10, and then the transition to Station 11. Again, the backing music pierced my heart. The backing music only had drums in it this time... and it was the kind of rhythm that would be played during a depiction of a medieval execution in a film. I know it's not the kind that would naturally move anyone, but it did move me. Again, I could've cried that day. And because it was a very Catholic, very prayerful setting, it moved me all the more. I'll be honest, something about it was beckoning to me, inviting me to find an opportunity to play the drums in a similar way. (I will not ask if I'll ever be able to do it. I'd love for my heart to do the talking one day. There's no point in me trying to explain myself in words if I can't get it across to people, and sometimes, seeing, or hearing, is believing.)
    • At Station 11, the cross was right before our eyes. They stood the cross up for that station. We could have knelt at this station because it was a meditation on the death of the crucified Christ, but because of the space constraint, we did not. We all had to stand. There was a bit of a moment of silence, though. I made it a point to remember what Jesus had been through. To our enemies, when He died, when any one of His martyrs died, it seemed to them like a sign of our defeat. But soon enough, they knew that it spelt the defeat of all that is evil, instead of ours. Sin entered the world when Satan tempted Adam and Eve on a tree, but sin and death were also conquered by Christ Jesus on a tree.
  • Finally, after Stations 12, 13 and 14 were over and Via Crucis was over, Pope Benedict passed us by again. We were all thrilled to see him again!
We decided to have dinner in the city centre itself, and after much walking, we found a sandwich joint. And my, the time it took before we could have our meal! It took us between 30 minutes to a good hour before we could get our hands on the sandwiches! We had a hearty meal nonetheless, and after spending quite a while in the city centre, we tried to walk around to avoid the Metro traffic. On the way, we found out that Peter had gone missing. We also met up with Fr Seán, and asked if he could find Peter for us. After walking down a mile or two, we found a further Metro station and boarded it all the way to Pueblo Nuevo, switched lines and returned to Ascao.

Days 6 and 7

I write about those two days together, because those were the two days we spent in the military airbase in the outskirts of Madrid, Cuatro Vientos.

In the morning, when we got up, got freshened up and went to San Romualdo, we were given a rousing sending-off by the people of Ascao. They were happy to have us, and they wished us the very best, as well as a safe journey to Cuatro Vientos for the vigil and closing mass with Pope Benedict. It was a heartwarming morning. And nearly every team performed something special for the people who were present. We, being the low-key Britons, only watched. And then, that afternoon, we had a good lunch at La Tasquita de Lola. Before that, we all chipped in to buy a gift for Lola, who provided for us whilst we were at Ascao. Michael and company returned with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates just for her. And my, she was moved!

After a good meal, we packed our bags, left the heavy luggage in San Romualdo (considering that after returning from Cuatro Vientos, we would stay the night there), took our sleeping bags and light luggage and began our long journey to Cuatro Vientos. We switched at least three Metro lines, and the last one was absolutely harrowing. The train was PACKED like sardines. There was very little ABSOLUTELY NO LEGROOM. Right behind me was Peter, who was placed in such a position that I felt like I was being pushed out! Poor boy!

When we took the final Metro heading to Cuatro Vientos, we knew that we had to stop at the station before Cuatro Vientos itself. We had to stop in Aviacion Espanola, mainly because of the traffic. There were fourteen stops in total (I think). Much of it was underground. And I had a mild case of claustrophobia in that train. My chest was aching. I had to try to take deep breaths, though I knew that much of the oxygen in that train was being used up. At that point in time I thought, this is worse than the Tube at peak hour!

Much of the stops were underground ones. At the tenth stop, which was an overground one, there was what we Britons (especially Londoners) would call a 'standard Tube break': the doors of the train were opened and the train was left standing still for about ten to fifteen minutes. The driver was probably knackered and needed some refreshment. It was one of those moments where you couldn't decide which was better: going outside to get fresh air, or staying inside. Inside the train, it was packed. Outside the train, it was sweltering. Neither helped. I decided to stay in the train even though every other second I felt like I was going to be pushed out the door!

When we finally reached Aviacion Espanola, we were hit with another snag. The main exit could not be used because of the traffic. We ended up having to use the fire exit instead. That meant climbing up several flights of stairs with our bags until we reached ground level. And as if that was not enough, we were out in the heat. The trainers that I had brought with me work best in cold weather, but in that blazing heat, they made blisters on my heels. And we walked...... WE WALKED. WE WALKED SEVERAL MILES all the way to Cuatro Vientos.

During the journey, we felt the same atmosphere that we felt in Sol on the first day: people were cheering and celebrating. I heard people making a joyful noise. It was a Catholic party on the streets. Or, in Damian's own words, 'Catholic Glastonbury'! The noisiest teams were the Italian and American teams. Among the Italians there were people screaming 'Italiano batti le mani!' (Italians, clap your hands!). And, as if to counter that, the Americans went with their trademark 'U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!' There were people spraying us with water at some points, because we needed to cool down.

Then, when we arrived at a quieter portion of the road........... I got stranded. I was separated from the rest of the group.

I thought I had gone behind everyone else, but it turned out that I had gone ahead of everyone else. I didn't know whether to turn back, or carry on. With the sea of people approaching from behind, I dared not turn back for fear of really getting lost. So I moved on. I searched for an entrance to Cuatro Vientos, and when I got to the entrance, I saw some volunteers there. I asked them where E1 was (see Day 3's pictures for the card with 'E1' on it), and I went straight on, pretty aimlessly. I soon met a few people from another team from Southwark and discovered that they were to go to E7. Same row, but different column. I asked them where to go, and they pointed me in a certain direction. I thanked them and went on my way.

I walked on the sandy terrain with no water left. My feet were painful. The hot sun was beating down on me. I had that bag to carry. As I walked, I imagined that Christ Jesus, when carrying the cross for our sins, was beaten down by that same hot sun. His sufferings were even more than mine. I went on. E8. E7. E6. E5..... At the intersection between E5 and E4, I dropped everything and sat on my bag. I was exhausted and thirsty. I wondered if I'd make it in one piece to E1...... After what I believed to be a good enough rest on the ground, I picked myself up and trudged all the way to E1. And when I arrived there, there was still no sign of the UK Faith Movement. I decided to use my phone for the first time and call Damian, since he was our team leader.

"Damian, where are you?"

The minute I said that, a fire truck passed by and HOSED US DOWN! I tried to get my phone out of the way of the water, and I was speaking into the phone telling Damian to hold on when I did that... And then, when I finally regained control over the phone...


By that point he and the rest of the group had reached the intersection between E3 and E2. They weren't far from where I was. I ran to Damian, but that moment he was like... noli me tangere!

We found a good spot in that row, that column, and we set up camp. It was still sweltering, so Christina and I lay down under her parasol until it got slightly cooler. In the meantime, Jason brought some bricks and poles and found some netting and some foil, and he had bought a papal ensign, and with that, he made a tent. We were given bags of food... there was so much food. There were two loaves of bread (which closely resembled baguettes), some paté, three boxes of pasta salad, a box of fruits, a packet of nuts, some cake, some biscuits, four bottles of water, a hand sanitiser and I don't know what else. There was definitely a hefty amount of food. I ate a little, and then felt I couldn't eat anymore.

And then, I went into one of the chapels in the area for a confession, and the infamous tent-collapsing incident took place.

Catherine, Tilly and I were supposed to go to the VIP seats in row A (or B?) for the papal vigil, but probably because of what happened, we couldn't care less about the VIP seats. I was still shaken by what had happened. I stayed with the rest in front of the screen at Row E. Whilst I was there, I told Fr Mark (and probably Damian) bluntly: I almost died. It was still raining, the wind was still blowing when we arrived at the screen.

The minute the Blessed Sacrament was brought out, the rain and the winds stopped.

I knelt on the rocky terrain. It was uncomfortable, yes. But I felt I still had to kneel down and adore the blessed Lord. I felt that this was penance in itself. The priest who heard my confession could not give me any penance because the tent was about to collapse at the time; he went straight to the absolution. I learned how beauty could be brought out of uncomfortable situations. The entire airbase was silent. Everyone adored the blessed Lord, either standing or kneeling. You could hear a pin drop in the area... only that a pin wouldn't make any sound if it hit the sand, would it?

And then, benediction took place, and then the Blessed Sacrament was returned to the tabernacle. And the moment this happened, the rain and the winds started all over again!

In the midst of the rain and the winds, we saw a pretty fireworks display. The rest of the group went ahead. I waited with Christina and watched the fireworks. There was also a sign with some wiring which formed the WYD symbol on it, and it caught fire and burst into a pretty display of coloured flames. It was beautiful. At that moment, I expressed how happy I was to be alive... how happy I was to have participated in the adoration. How happy I was to have seen those fireworks. I waited until it was almost over, and then we both took a slow walk back to our camp.

Back at our camp, the rain and the winds grew stronger. All of us who were there huddled under the tent. I found out that Ryan and the rest had put our belongings under the tent so that they wouldn't get wet. We sat on all our belongings and said night prayer together with flashlights from mobile phones and torches (it would otherwise be pitch dark, and we wouldn't be able to read from the brievery). The rest of us got the front row; Damian and I were at the back. After night prayer, all of us posed for photos. We looked like true-blue peregrinos (pilgrims)!

The storm calmed down some time after that, and the terrain dried a little. We brought out our sleeping bags, and at about 10:00, I crashed.

6:00 the next morning, my phone alarm rang. I opened my eyes a little to see if anyone was stirring. I heard a few people talking to each other, but apart from that, the airbase was silent. Then one hour later, someone grabbed the mic, cranked up the volume on the speakers and yelled out an exuberant 'Buenos dias Cuatro Vientos'... Whoa there, what a way to wake us up!

We had to find every other way to clean ourselves up for the morning. It didn't matter that I had to put up with bed hair and fanservice *coughcoughthere'ssomeoneI'mhintingatcough*. The tent was taken down, and close to 9:00, we made our way to the screen again. This time, it was the rousing finale: the closing mass with Pope Benedict XVI. Again, I sang with all my heart there, and this time, I made sure to pour my heart and soul into that mass. That moment, it felt as though the entire world had gathered in one city to pray. I knew, though, that because so many people were left behind in their respective home countries, we were not entirely representative of the whole world, but that every single flag appeared in that closing mass was proof enough that any Catholic Christian would feel at home regardless of wherever he went, and with whomever he met. The holy mass, the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus in the Eucharist, unites us even with our disparity of culture, language and timezones. It was a beautiful thought indeed.

Close to the end of the mass, Pope Benedict announced that the next hosts of World Youth Day would be Brazil. The next WYD will take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 (considering that in 2014, Rio are hosting the FIFA World Cup). The WYD cross was taken from the shoulders of the Spaniards and given to the Brazilians. And my, how the Brazilians cheered! When the cross was transferred, one journey would end and another would begin no... wait... scrap that. The WYD journey never ends; it only changes destination. There ain't no party like a Catholic party 'cause the Catholic party don't stop!

Several weeks after that momentuous mass, I found footage of that closing mass on YouTube, and it is going to this blog along with the other videos once I have the opportunity to put them up.

After everything was over, Tilly and Catherine had to leave for Barajas, because they were flying out that evening. I interviewed Christina and Damian, we tidied up our spot and took shelter in one of the tents (which was used as a bar). We shared a light moment, even played charades (which explains why Damian is standing like that...) When the crowd dispersed, we took our leave. There were still many people on the road, and we were stranded on the road. Then, with some navigation, and after another long walk, we found a station close by. It was a light Metro station this time, not the ordinary Metro. That station WAS STILL PACKED. After some line-changing, we wound up back at Ascao, and spent the rest of the day in San Romualdo.

The first thing we did in San Romualdo was take a much-needed shower. Oh, how happy I was when I discovered that there were cubicles this time!

Shortly after that was mass, and then, we spent the night having dinner in La Tasquita de Lola and making some new American friends back at San Romualdo.

Day 8

We got up that morning, freshened up, went for terce and mass, went back to the room and tidied everything up, packed our bags and left them at the ground floor. Some of us went to Pueblo Nuevo because there was a store selling items of devotion (I did not go). We said goodbye to many people, and we had our last lunch at La Tasquita de Lola. It was the last day where all of us would be seated at table together as a group. I wouldn't be seeing Damian and the people from Southwark for a while. I felt a bit sad. We thanked Lola for all those good meals, and we took a few photos together.

On the way back Damian met up with a friend, César, and after a few photos together, they caught up with each other for a good hour. Damian, Peter, Michael, Stacey and I were to fly out that day. The remaining members of our team were to stay with local families for a night. As for Fr Mark, who would also fly home the next day, he stayed with a friend at another parish church. It was a pity that I had to miss that family bit, but I was excited to return to Britain. We said our goodbyes and boarded several Metro lines until we finally reached Barajas..........

Later, back in Stansted...

You can't imagine the wide smile on my face when I found that we were hovering over British soil! How happy I was to be back!

We arrived at about 7-ish. But everyone else had to wait because I was stuck in the border for quite a while! T_T I had forgotten to take a landing form, and I realised that I had to go all the way to the back of the queue, get a landing form and fill it in!

Michael and Stacey went their separate ways shortly afterwards, leaving Damian, Peter and me. We had missed the closest National Express back to Hatfield, so we decided to stay in and have a meal. Before that, we bought tickets for the 9:15 coach to Hatfield. When we were inside, the first thing I had was an all day breakfast sandwich.

"Missing English food already, now?" Damian asked me.
"You bet I am!"

After our meal, we took a quick pit stop and rushed down to the entrance..... only to realise that we missed the National Express AGAIN!

We didn't want to stay inside and risk missing another coach. The next one, apparently, was at midnight. We weren't willing to wait that long. So Damian called the visiting priest, Fr Hervé, and asked if the three of us could get a lift home. At about 10:00, Fr Hervé arrived. And at around midnight, we were taken to our doorsteps. Peter was the first to be sent home, followed by me, and then after that, Damian and Fr Hervé returned to the presbytery.

What an adventure it was. What an adventure. I praise, bless and thank God for giving me this wonderful time to spend with the friends I cherish the most. And I also praise, bless and thank God for allowing me to live beyond that fateful day.

Coming soon:
World Youth Day, in videos


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