Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Trialsome Night in Madrid

On Saturday, August 20, we had hoped to attend the WYD Prayer Vigil with the Pope in Cuatro Vientos and Sunday Mass with him the next morning. So we set out with our bags in tow and hiked for about two hours to the place in 103-degree weather. We had to stop numerous times along the way to take a water break. We finally made it!

But not all of us. One of our ladies got sidetracked with another group, and we lost her somewhere behind us. So Dr. Theresa and Alan walked back to try to find her. Another member, Elizabeth, arrived before us and was somewhere inside the gates, alone.

We thought we’d go inside the gates, too, but we found out that they were locked up. They were not letting any more pilgrims in because they had already exceeded capacity. There were over 1 million pilgrims inside.

As we stood there in dismay wondering what in the world to do next and where we were going to spend the night, suddenly, the skies darkened and a strong wind picked up. It swept through and stirred up the dust and sand under our feet. We realized we didn’t have anything else to do but to run and look for shelter immediately. Sand was blowing around. Caroline lost her eye contact on the ground, so we all bent down trying to feel for it…and found it. We saw a grassy spot under some trees nearby a building that looked like a school. Prepared to spend the night there, a few of us strolled away to look for a bathroom, which we were in desperate need of.

As we walked, we came across some large, white canvas tents set up as if for a concert. We moved our company there, where we were more sheltered, at least on the top. The winds blew. The rain poured down. People were screaming and running out and away from the tent, afraid it would collapse. We had no better option, so we stayed put. We gathered in a circle, prayed for our lost pilgrims and prayed for our safety. Eventually, the rain stopped.

Then what should appear but a magnificent display of fireworks! The fireworks exploded up over the heights of the buildings and lit up the night sky. We oohed and awed. It was the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen in my life and in the most unusual conditions.

We eventually found a bathroom at a nearby restaurant, purchased some pizza, and were generously given a bag of sandwiches and juice boxes from a kind couple, who offered it to our group because the other pilgrims they were expecting never showed up.

We unrolled our sleeping bags and lay down for the night (it was about 10:00 p.m. I think). I had pulled my bags up close to me and had a hand on my stuff. As I lay there trying to sleep, I suddenly felt commotion going on around me. I sat up and overheard my group talking. One of the security guard volunteers in a green vest had crept over and was digging through one of the guys’ backpacks! They shooed him out of our midst and he went home, saying he was a little bit drunk. I had gotten an uneasy feeling about him the whole time, because of the way he was eyeing us all. Something nasty seemed bound to happen. After that, the guys in our group took turns patrolling our borders and our stuff. Four of the guys stayed awake all night, watching over us! Because of them, I have never felt so safe in my life.

The guys on our trip really helped us through the tough situations. I have been in these type of situations with all girls…it’s hard! Too many hyped emotions. The guys reassured us all, made us laugh in the middle of tough situations, navigated our way through the city, and led the group, lifting high our Amercian standard, while keeping the group together. I would imagine the presence of us women inspired the men as well and somehow made them firmer in their purpose…I don’t know what they’d say, but I’m sure it went both ways.

Saturday night, I felt emotionally stretched to the point of breaking, perhaps more than I ever have. But we really proved triumphant in the face of difficulty.

From the first moment we stepped off the plane into Barcelona, we would learn to depend on each other for everything. Only one time was I ever alone (without a fellow pilgrim) and that was in Lourdes. When we’d split into groups, everyone played a vital part. Someone was the navigator with the map, one and two of the girls spoke Spanish fluently, and all of us were upbeat and optimistic most of the time.

Humor became very important. To be able to laugh is I think one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Heaven must be full of laughter. Heaven must be full of singing.

Our flag inspired all of us in bravery and in our identity. I fell in love with the stars and stripes this trip. The pilgrimage to WYD not only renewed my sense of pride in being part of this holy, universal and apostolic Church, but also in being a United States citizen.

At 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning, we got up and walked back to the gate at Cuatro Vientos, hoping we might get in. We never did. Instead, we ended up sleeping literally in the street. We stayed until about 8:30 a.m. and then decided to turn around and head all the way back to our host school building from which we’d set out the day before. When we got there, we rested on the sidewalk and waited, because that gate was locked, too, until the volunteers came! This is a picture of our defeat...

I have to laugh, because every time I’ve been to Spain, I always survive a scenario with a locked gate! On my first trip to Spain, my friends and I were locked out of the gate to our villa and had to climb over the fence to get inside. Guess I just don’t have luck with gates in Spain!

Sunday night the vote was unanimous. We would spend the night in a hotel.

What Happened Next: Jamon y Cheso, Cold Showers, Pope and Flags

From Lourdes we set out for Loyola, Spain, center of the Jesuit Order. We visited Azeita, the birthplace of St. Ignatius, and celebrated Mass in the room of his conversion. It was St. Ignatius who wrote:

“To give,
and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,

to toil, and not to seek for rest,

to labor, and not to ask for any reward,

save that of knowing that we do thy will.”

Great lines for a pilgrim.

We traveled through the Basque region on route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella – the famous Way of St. James. Pilgrims travel this way on horseback, bicycle, or by foot. We took the bus and stopped at towns along the way.

On Aug 13 we arrived in Pamplona, famous for its running of the bulls. We walked around the city, stopped at a planetarium, a church of St. Augustine, and the cathedral, where we witnessed a Rosary procession. Oh, how the Spaniards love their processions!

From there we entered the Castille-Leon region and saw the massive cathedral of Burgos. Burgos is one of the most important cities along the Camino de Santiago, and it is where the legendary medieval hero El Cid is buried. I noticed Spanish statues are different: they have real hair and are dressed in clothes!

Segovia was the most breath-taking and romantic-feeling place. After having Mass at the tomb of St. John of the Cross, we arrived at our hotel in Segovia and took an evening stroll to see the aqueducts. We climbed up to the top for incredible views of the city, lit up by the moonlight and street lights, and we topped off the night with wine at an outdoor café nearby the aqueduct. In Segovia, we also visited the palace where the Catholic monarchs ruled and saw the chairs where Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand sat.

We only saw Avila briefly. It’s a walled-in city that is very charming. Two older men in their 70s approached our American flag. They were twin brothers from Arizona on a tour of Spain– not headed to World Youth Day – but just as spunky and full of zest as the youngest of us. They wanted a picture with one of our girls, and on the count of three, they kissed her!

We walked down the street, turned a corner and heard a gunshot; then music and people processing a dark-haired and elaborately dressed statue of Mary in the streets. It was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary and a national holiday.

When we reached Madrid, we got a warm welcome in more ways than one. We arrived in our simple housing quarters, a parish school gym, where the priest welcomed us. We got our WYD backpacks, supper and a kind of beer without alcohol. Madrid was unbearably hot and sunny with temps in the upper 90s to 100s.

Our days in Madrid were marked by talks and concerts in the Love and Life Center, the English-speaking center for WYD pilgrims. We ate jamon y cheso boccodillos (ham and cheese on hard rolls of bread) daily. We took frigid COLD showers from water spouts set up in a convent courtyard in the ghetto of Madrid, with grape vines hanging over us. We toured the Prado Museum, where I especially admired the works by Murillo, Velasquez and Grecco. We greeted the Holy Father when he came into Madrid on his Popemobile. We watched the Stations of the Cross, a moving testimony of the faith by young people. Large statues came from all over Spain to illustrate our Lord’s passion and death on the Cross.

We greeted hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world and the U.S. in Madrid. They were packed into the Metro and overflowing the streets. We chanted songs in the streets and traded pins, flags, and other trinkets with each other. It was the “meeting of flags” and really did bring the world together!

We attended the final World Youth Day event on Sunday, August 21 – a soccer game between Spain and the rest of the world. After the game, we walked back to the metro in the pouring rain. The metro was crowded with hundreds of happy pilgrims, all shouting and singing and chanting about the next World Youth Day in 2013 in Rio, Brazil. They chanted, “RI-O! RI-O! RI-O!”

“Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.

It was our theme to accept all things with joy. Hence, the discomforts and inconveniences of this trip became an exercise in patience and joy. I was amazed at how little anyone complained and how much everyone really stuck together and had a great attitude, even under some very stressful conditions.

“Accept it with joy” became our motto in all circumstances. When things were rough, when we were stranded from each other, hungry, tired, in need of a toilet or forced to wait in uncomfortable conditions, we embraced it as part of the experience. All together we’d sing our way down the streets of Madrid, supported to the left and to the right by our fellow pilgrims singing with us. We’d be joined by other groups or join in their songs. “Lean on Me” was a popular theme amongst the English speakers. We sang that more than once. The streets became filled with song in many different languages.

What would the world look like if singing was how we faced the hardships of life?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Farewell America! Bienvenido a Espana!

As the months led up to August this year, my excitement and eager expectation for heading out of the country grew more and more intense. I was thrilled to be leaving everything behind to pilgrimage in France and Spain for two whole weeks! I felt more ready than ever to go and see what was in store for me there.

August 10 – our group of 24 departed Chicago airport for Atlanta, then flew to Barcelona and tried to sleep on the eight hour and 17 minute flight there. Spain is 7 hours ahead of central U.S. time, so it was morning when we got there.

We weren’t the only ones headed to World Youth Day on that flight. In the Atlanta airport, we came across our first sight of fellow young people headed to World Youth Day. They were a group of jovenos y jovenas from Tijuana, Mexico. We recognized them as pilgrims, because they all had matching t-shirts, and there were several holy-looking priests among them. That was to be a foreshadowing of what was coming: the event that really did bring the world together.

As soon as we landed in Barcelona, we got on a bus and left Barcelona. We met our tour guide, Neosa, from Portugal, who gave us interesting lectures about the history, economy, weather, landscape, etc. as we made our way through the Pyrenees Mountain region to Lourdes, France.

Lourdes was a great place to start out our spiritual pilgrimage. Being the home of St. Bernadette and the apparition site of Our Lady of Lourdes, it is a place steeped in prayer and miracles. I would realize later that every true spiritual pilgrimage begins with prayer, continues with prayer, endures with prayer, celebrates with prayer and concludes peacefully with prayer. At the Grotto where our Blessed Mother appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette, I ran my hand over the rock and prayed for my intentions. I prayed for you all - friends, families and benefactors - and for my personal intentions, which I carried with me on pilgrimage. I placed them there at the Grotto.

Twice we got to witness (and participate) in the daily candlelight procession in Lourdes. As we joined the hundreds or thousands of pilgrims that were gathered there, some on their way to WYD and others just visiting Lourdes, I felt so much peace and love for Mother Mary and the Church. There was so much faith and devotion in the people, who had traveled far and wide to come to this place.

My own miracle at Lourdes happened as I stood by the river, looking on towards the Grotto. It was Friday, August 12, in the morning. Our group was facing the direction of the Grotto, observing the international Mass for WYD pilgrims that was taking place in the Grotto. So many people passed by us from different countries the world over, and I thought, this would be a great place to catch my friends Mary-Kate and her brother Peter if they happened to walk this way.

I had been praying prior to the trip and that day to St. Anthony (patron saint of lost things) that he would help me and Mary-Kate to find each other in Lourdes or somewhere during the WYD trip. We hadn’t seen each other for over two years, since we live so far apart in the States. However, I knew she was in Lourdes with a group from her diocese, but I had no contact information for her.

As I waited by the Grotto, wishing to see my friend...there, lo and behold, suddenly appeared Peter, walking down the street. Mary-Kate was right behind him! I almost forgot my bag in my haste to run to her, so overcome was I by emotion! We hugged. It was such a joyful moment. I knew then that God had heard my other prayers, too! Not only did the meet up with Mary-Kate actually happen, God gave it to us at the perfect time. They had nowhere to be, so they joined my group in hiking and praying the Stations of the Cross. We even had time to eat lunch together at an outdoor café before going our separate ways. The timing was incredible.

The second most memorable experience for me was washing in the baths. Our Lady asked Bernadette to drink the water and wash in it for sinners. I stopped at the water taps in the wall to drink the water and wash my face, but the baths were truly a powerful experience. In line to the baths, three friendly ladies from Dublin made friends with me and took delight in reassuring me - since it was my first time - that everything would be wonderful. They were so happy for me; they were like angels, encouraging me and leading me with love. I felt no fear, only overwhelming emotion and a sense of complete abandonment and trust in God. Again, I prayed for my particular intentions and left them there, metaphorically, in the healing waters of Lourdes.

Other highlights in France: tasting delicious French cuisine, strolling through the enchanting city streets, listening to the romantic French language spoken by natives, and speaking the only words I knew in French, “Bonjour!” or “Bonsoir!”

Random facts. There are tons of roundabouts in France. Neo, our tour guide, told us that they change the direction of the traffic one-ways in France every 15 days. That means, they have to switch which direction the street signs are pointing every 15 days. They do it so the businesses get equal shoppers.

On August 13, we left Lourdes. We made our way back to Spain, where we'd spend the next 11 days of our pilgrimage.