Looking Back at World Youth Day 2011: A Jesuit Reflects on What the Event Meant to Him

One month ago today, World Youth Day festivities in Madrid, Spain culminated with a Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. With over 1.5 million in attendance, the event marked an opportunity for young adults from across the globe to gather together in celebration of their faith. 

Before World Youth Day began, a group of 3,000 pilgrims gathered for Magis – a pastoral experience of Ignatian programs and events for students from Jesuit institutions. This year’s Magis initiative particularly resonated with Jesuits, their partners and those with an interest in Ignatian Spirituality as it took place in the birthplace, homeland and at the sites where St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, underwent his spiritual conversion which ultimately led to the formation of the Society of Jesus and his writings of The Spiritual Exercises.

Jesuit Father Joe Laramie, recently ordained a priest, was there as a chaperone with a group of pilgrims from Boston College. A graduate student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Fr. Laramie looks back at his experience at World Youth Day and what it meant to him personally and for the Church in this piece for National Jesuit News.

Also included below are three video pieces looking back at the experiences of the Magis pilgrims and their Jesuit chaperones at Loyola, Spain, during the Magis experiences and ultimately, World Youth Day itself. You can also take look back by watching all of our videos on YouTube with pilgrims and U.S. Jesuits who experienced this year’s Magis and World Youth Day celebrations.

Fr. Joe Laramie, SJ, prepares for Mass along the camino while leading a group of pilgrims during Magis 2011 in Spain.

Every two or three years, on a wide plain outside a big city, the Church is transfigured. I saw it happen in Paris in 1997, in Toronto in 2002 and in Madrid last month. At Christ’s Transfiguration, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” [Matthew17:2]. This is why young people came to Madrid last month. To see a transfiguration, and to experience it themselves.

I stood up for the Eucharistic prayer at the final Mass in Madrid. I was so exhausted that I got light-headed as I stood. It was so bright, I could hardly see. I stood behind 14,000 priests. We were all wearing white chasuables and white hats. The pope was 100 yards away, in front of a giant white backdrop, with the sun climbing higher and higher. “El Señor es contigo.” “Y con tu espiritu,” I responded, with the priests, and 1.5 million young people. I was wearing sunglasses, but could almost see better with my eyes closed.

Christ “lead them up a high mountain” before the Transfiguration. I lived in Denver for a few years; it is hard to climb high mountains. You sweat, it’s hot, the air is thin, the rocks slide beneath your feet. Your back hurts. Your pack cuts into your shoulders. There is thunder and lightning. You need a Guide and friends. You can’t climb alone.

Three thousand young people were treated for dehydration, as we waited on the field, under the sun, the day before the Mass. Later, the crowd heard this announcement over the loudspeakers: “There are 23 lost children waiting at area E5. If you lost your child, or if you are a lost child, go to area E5.” Then, at night, a thunderstorm had pounded us. The pope was leading us in a night prayer; two acolytes held a quivering white umbrella over him as the rain blew sideways. The storm destroyed several large tents. These were 50 feet tall, 100 feet wide, with 4-inch steel supports, bolted into the ground. Picture one of those doing a backflip in 40 mph wind on a crowded field. It is a miracle that no one was injured or killed. The rain slowed, the wind stopped. It was quiet. The pope said, “Young people, thank you for your joy! Thank you for your resistance! Your strength is greater than the rain!” We smiled and cried. The 23 lost were soon found, the 3,000 thirsty were quenched. Gracias a Dios!

At the Mass, this was the Transfiguration of the Church. Singing, chanting, praying. Multilingual, multinational. With the flags and the World Youth Day shirts and hats, sunglasses, hiking boots, cameras, sweat, patience, water bottles, dirt, fatigue, chaperones, sleeping bags, and wrinkled maps.

Looking Back at Magis 2011: Part One – Gathering in Loyola Video

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict speaks of the need for silence in the Mass. Those who have experienced a church united in silent prayer “will know what a really filled silence is” [p215, emphasis his]. I saw it. I heard it in Madrid. 1.5 million people praying. After the homily, and again before the closing prayer, you could see the silence. For a minute or two, the cell phone-cameras were not raised up, snapping pictures. This is what we came for. With Peter, we silently said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

This is the Church at its best. International, young, hope-filled, praying, glad. Gathered around the altar, praising the Lord together, thanking Him, with the pope leading our prayer.

“I realized I’m not alone.” I heard this at least 20 times during the trip. From Boston College students, from Lebanese, from Hungarians. “There are so many other people around the world who believe the same things I do!” This is the Church. Every two or three years, we see it, see Her, on a wide plain outside a big city: Glorified. At Christ’s Transfiguration, the depth of His being was suddenly visible to Peter, James and John. This is who He always is, of course, the Shining Son; but now they could see Him clearly, in glory. And this is who the Church always is—one, holy, Catholic, apostolic. But we need to see it clearly, in glory, sometimes. And not just see it—but be it.

Looking Back at Magis 2011: Part Two – On Pilgrimage Video

World Youth Day is a full contact sport. It demands full, conscious, active participation. Each event in Madrid is about actually being there, being a part of something big—with others. This is enacting a global Church—through, with, and in Christ. A talk by Archbishop Dolan, the ‘Soul Food Café’ [sponsored by Kairos Europe and Kairos Middle East], ‘50 years of Congo,’ and thousands of other events are about seeing, tasting, smelling, singing, learning. I was ordained in June. In Madrid, I saw that I was ordained for the global Church, for all of Christ’s people.

American Jesuits have to be here. In force, in Brazil in 2013, and at every World Youth Day after that. This is the largest Catholic event in the world. This is the largest youth event in the world. They want us to accompany them. They need us to accompany them.

As Jesuits, we can help our young people to understand and deepen this outpouring of grace. The Spiritual Exercises are a powerful tool to discern spirits, contemplate Christ and follow Him more nearly. That is what our youth want, and they want our help. We have to go with them. For many of us, this means sleeping on classroom floors, or on the ground, getting lost, being tired and thirsty—with them. Our King tells us, “Whoever wishes to come with me has to be content with the same food I eat, and the drink, and the clothing…through following me in the pain, he may follow me also in the glory” [SpEx #93, 95]. Healthy Scholastics [Jesuits in their three year period of theology and philosophy studies] are best for this part.

Looking Back at Magis 2011: Part Three – At World Youth Day Video

Other Jesuits can help by giving theological talks. I helped to do this at the “Love and Life Center,” which was the English-language ministry center in Madrid. I and several American Jesuits gave talks on the Exercises, the examen, and the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. We all heard confessions–a lot of confessions– preached at Masses and engaged in spiritual conversation on trails, in restaurants and in subways.

Facebook connects us, but it leaves us hungry for more. These young adults want to see actual faces. To talk, listen, pray and praise. “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” To savor this time. That’s why there are so many souvenir shirts, photos, Facebook uploads, trading knickknacks with students from other countries—to savor this mountaintop experience. To treasure this time by building three tents. Some complain that World Youth Day is not sustainable. It’s not. It sustains. Was the Transfiguration sustainable? Would Jesus’ advisers tell him, “The face shining, the glowing clothes—isn’t it a bit much? Are the guys gonna expect this on every mountain?” The Transfiguration was a glimpse into the true glory of the Divine Carpenter. After the Cross, it made the Resurrection [somewhat] understandable. We can help these youth to understand, digest, and internalize the glorified Body of Christ that they experience. The Transfiguration is not the conclusion, but the Living Bread that feeds and sends.

Our Jesuit “Hearts on Fire” talks in Madrid were well attended and the students were attentive—some even taking notes. Our Jesuit spiritual and intellectual training gives us a real theological depth. This is a “frontier” that young people are striving for, but they cannot reach it on their own. Upon seeing the beauty of the faith, they want to live it more fully. We can help them. Ignatian spirituality is a powerful gift that we bring to the Church; but to bring it, we must come in person—in force—to World Youth Day.

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