Monday, August 22, 2011

Random (and final) WYD thoughts

  • As I pack and prepare to leave Madrid (not for home, but for Toronto en route to the annual general meeting of Catholic Christian Outreach in Ottawa) I have mixed feelings. World Youth Day was simultaneously everything I hoped and feared, and it will take some time to process.
  • One thing stands out: I'm more convinced than ever that the Eucharist must be the center of all our efforts to keep young people connected to the Church. Specifically, WYD (and Youth 2000 in Ireland) have me thinking that Eucharistic adoration is the way to a deeper understanding of, and participation in, the Mass. Can we not do more of this in the parish?
  • Serendipity abounds at times like this! Today was frustrating: the events are over, but the museums are closed, and the cathedral packed with pilgrims. I wandered unsuccessfully looking for a church in which to pray. Feeling a bit sorry for myself, I headed home--only to bump into Archbishop Miller on the street. He bought me a nice lunch!
  • Many lessons learned from the youth. Here's one: As we trudged (and I mean trudged!) from the Cuatro Vientos site yesterday, I noticed one of our group carrying a large green garbage bag, along with several heavy bags of food, so asked if I could take it from her. I carried it for an hour or so before asking what it contained. Turned out she'd collected sleeping bags and tarps abandoned around our sleeping area so she could give them to homeless people she'd spied around our hostel. Ditto all the food.
  • On a similar note: while we were sometimes as crabby with one another as ordinary tourists (I rather fear these young parishioners now know me better and like me less!), in times of particular discomfort or disappointment, there was never a grumble to be heard.
  • We also had a few laughs, some from the speakers, others from behind the scenes. When the ultra-jovial Archbishop Dolan of New York spied one of his seminarians carrying boxes towards him after Mass, he exclaimed "Doughnuts?!" When the young man said, "Pizza," the archbishop put his arm around his shoulders and said "Just perfect... Monsignor," as they headed down the hall.
  • While giving an address in the large sports stadium, Archbishop Dolan looked up at the large TV screen above him and said "Oh, I really do have to lose weight!" And then motioning to the wide sash around his ample waist (held in place by Velcro), he added "If this baby blows, it'll take out the whole front row!"
  • It was also rather funny to see the Pope's white beanie sail (and I mean sail) through the air when the storm blew up.
  • One of my friends is a priest not known for his love of clerical dress or for dressing up, period. He says he'd have certainly come to WYD if he'd known he could have got a photo of me at Mass with the Pope--unshaven, unwashed, and in the clothes I'd worn to bed!
  • Apart from the sight of crowds beyond imagining, one particular image stands out: the young religious (Sisters, Brothers and priests). They were numerous and extremely visible in their religious habits. Reports of the end of religious life may have been premature; the revival, however, seems to be mostly with newly-founded communities, with the interesting exception of the Dominicans. Both male and female branches were very well-represented, especially Americans.
  • Sorry this is rather rushed, but I haven't time for editing. Perhaps this is the great attraction of Twitter! By the way, I made my debut on Twitter yesterday, when one of our pilgrims tweeted that I would be distributing Holy Communion at the cathedral. Thousands came when this message was swiftly passed along. (Just kidding.)
  • Thanks for reading; over and out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No More Complaining!!!

While my comments about overbooked sleeping bag spaces and underprovided bathroom facilities weren't really grumbling, I just now learned how lucky we were!

On his blog, Archbishop Prendergast reports the following, the first we've heard of it:

"With the rain at the opening ceremonies for the 2011 World Youth Day,we can certainly feel the frustration of our Spanish friends at Saturdayevening's vigil, having experienced similar moments of Mother Nature at World Youth Day in Downsview Park in 2002 and at the Eucharistic Congress on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City in 2008!

"Both the Toronto and Ottawa groups were among many groups that were not allowed entrance into the Cuatro Vientos Airfield tonight due to overcrowding.

"The police announced that no one would be allowed into the site on Sunday morning, and asked people to attend mass in a stadium in downtown Madrid.

"Cardinal Ruoco Varela cancelled all parish masses for Sunday as well! The Spanish Civil Protection Senior Officers reported that there were about 1.4 million people at Cuatro Vientos long before the event started. The area had been prepared for 750,000. Some police said that close to 200,000 people were not allowed into the area. Large national groups did not get access to the site, including many Australians."

So we pilgrims from Christ the Redeemer, wet, sweaty and dirty as we are, have arrived back at our hostel with much to be thankful for!

Calm After the Storm

If you compare this photo with the one in my previous post, you'd hardly think they were taken just twelve hours apart! This picture looks like it was taken on a nice beach somewhere!

Actually, it's a photo of me with Bishop Cornelius Sim of the diocese of Brunei (technically, he is the Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, which is not yet formally constituted as a diocese).

This cheerful and kind man proved something of a saviour to us at WYD, and to me in particular. He has family in Vancouver, and took a personal interest when he heard us being turned away from our section for the third time. With a slightly mischievous grin, he invited us to hop the fence and try to find some space with his group.

There truly was none, but somehow we pulled off a loaves and fishes miracle and managed to squeeze in with the Brunei youth--and with the bishop himself, because he had chosen not to be on the stage with the Pope for the vigil, nor to stay with the bishops in their hotel! He had bunked down with the rest of us! It was a great thing to see, and his good humour kept us going.

It also kept me going, to be a little bit blunt! The toilets were virtually inaccessible from our camp because zealous volunteers were blocking roads. They simply wouldn't let us pass, and I needed a bathroom in the worst way.

The bishop grabbed my arm and said, "we'll go together." The same volunteer barred our way until another caught sight of Bishop Sim's official ID badge and said "O! Obispo!" at which point the lad moved aside quickly. The bishop gave him a big smile and a hug, and after that we moved freely past the checkpoint!

WYD 2011 Storm

It's now official--even though our Madrid accomodations had air-conditioning, I'm a full-fledged member of the World Youth Day fraternity, entitled to the secret handshake and all! All I need is the T-shirt: "I got soaked at WYD."

It wasn't the first experience of hardship: we arrived at the site of the vigil and Mass with the Pope to find our allocated section was full--overbooked by 300. We literally had nowhere to lay our heads, (More on that in the next post.)

Then we (well, mostly I) discover that the toilets are as few as they are far away. Outrageously bad planning. On the other hand, lots of food in our "picnic packs," which four of us collected for the group.

As we headed back with our heavy load, we came across a poor lady who had collected the same number of picnic sacks and was unable to carry them. Our young adults sized up the situation much quicker than I, and we divided her load between us--just as the wind began to blow a la the opening scene of "The Wizard of Oz," followed swiftly by lashing rain.

The first gusts blew the Holy Father's zuchetto (beanie) right off his head, and his hairstyle looked something like Harry Potter's for a few moments.

The prayer vigil had to stop because of the tempest, but after about ten minutes or so someone said from on stage "The rain has really slowed down. Pray some more and it will stop!" We did, and it did!

For the rest of the evening we had just some occasional showers. I slept in a waterproof sack which was large enough to hold my backpack, another pilgrim's backpack, and my runners, the only articles of clothing I bothered to remove.

Throughout there was nothing but cheerfulness and acceptance: really a living lesson in how to maintain peace of heart--and of the power of WYD.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

WYD 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, blogging is harder than it looks when you're running around in every direction and using an ancient laptop (six years old is now almost antique!). Actually, it's a shame that neither I nor my younger fellow pilgrims have been sending despatches from Madrid, because there's lots to report on.* World Youth Day is anything but boring, to say the least.

For instance, the epicentre of the demonstrations against WYD (and government expenditures related to it) is less than two blocks from our hostel. A huge square filled with protestors greeted us on our way to an evening prayer service, while an empty one ringed with riot police was what we found on our way home.

Happily, signs of joy and faith completely overpowered the negative impressions of the protests. The crowds welcoming the Pope are very difficult to describe: there's literally a football stadium of people lining every avenue.

The number of people makes it difficult to move about, and often uncomfortable, yet the easy manner and good cheer of the young people is a wonderful thing to see. In a crowd so tight that I felt the stirrings of panic, I was surrounded by people who looked as contented as if strolling through a park.

The English-language presentations--given in a massive indoor stadium seating (I'd guess) close to 20,000--have been stellar. Cardinal Pell of Sydney (who came to dinner at the parish with our pilgrims before the last WYD), Archbishop Dolan of New York, and our own Archbishop Miller have all given great talks to the throng, and celebrated Mass for us.

The heat is less oppressive than I feared. It's not as humid as, say, Washington or Toronto on a bad day, and air conditioning is more common that I'd expected. But I say that just an hour before heading out on foot to the papal Mass site, where we will spend the night outdoors!

Time for one last shower before heading off on our pilgrim walk!

*For much better blogging, check out

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Blogging during my World Youth Day trip has proved technically daunting... my tired old laptop is not performing well, and internet connections are spotty—so the post below was written more than ten days ago! Since then I have been to Valencia for Days in the Diocese and am now in Madrid. But chances of another post are slim.

I call this my blog, but that's not honest advertising! The dedicated bloggers I know work much harder at it than I do, with Archbishop Terry Prendergast winning the prize. On our World Youth Day trip, Meghan and Chris plan to file regular reports (though I haven't seen any yet! (More about Rob Fuller's blog below.)

What I'm offering today is a quick recap of nine days in Ireland. Just the itinerary would tire most readers, so I'll stick with some highlights.

I was met in Dublin by a Rome classmate and dear friend who I won't name because I intend to praise him below, which he hates; he was a spectacular host throughout and a terrific guide.

We weren't out of the airport before I sat down to the first of many Irish breakfasts—also known as a fry or fry-up, as near as I could tell! From there we went directly to All Hallows College. The college has trained many hundreds of Irish priests, mainly for the service of the Church outside of Ireland.

At All Hallows I shared two days of a retreat called "The Intercession for Priests." This annual event brings priests from all over Ireland, and elsewhere, to pray with and for their brothers. An Irish Vincentian priest, Father Kevin Scallon, began the Intercession 35 years ago with the help of a very gifted religious, Sister Briege McKenna. Both were on hand and I enjoyed seeing them again—they had visited Vancouver some years back.

I'm not going to report much about the priests' conversation in order to respect their privacy, but I can certainly say they are profoundly shocked and saddened by the clergy abuse crisis that has engulfed their country. It can't really be compared to the similar tragedy experienced in Canada, because the size of Ireland, the position of the Church in society, and the political implications have all combined to make the scandal vastly more pervasive than it was here.

What I will say is that the two priest friends with whom I spent time during the holiday, along with others I met at All Hallows and elsewhere are among the finest priests you'll meet anywhere; their willingness to bear the weight of others' sin and failure is Christ-like. I felt very sad for them, yet confident that grace will abound despite it all.

The enormity of the sins of some, and the woefulness of the official response in some quarters, can't be denied or minimized. But I formed the clear impression that some of those who do not support our mission have seized on the crisis as an opportunity to weaken the Church.

It's out of sequence, but I want to tell you here about a second experience of prayer that left me full of hope for the Church in Ireland—and elsewhere—even if it's to be a smaller, holier Church.

On Saturday night my host and I went out to a gathering near the ancient monastic ruins of Clonmacnoise to take part in the annual national gathering of young people organized by a lay-led movement called Youth 2000. The festival depends entirely on donations despite the huge cost involved—the young people attend without charge. It felt a lot like Catholic Christian Outreach's annual Rise Up event (which will be held in Vancouver this year, incidentally).

Twenty or so of us started to hear confessions around 8:30 p.m. We finished well after midnight, and then stayed on to adore the Blessed Sacrament with the 500 or so participants (which included an impressive number of young priests, Brothers and Sisters, from both the ancient orders like the Dominicans and newer ones like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal). The whole thing was very moving for me... and joyful.

At Clonmacnoise I bumped into an old acquaintance, the dynamic young Irish Senator Ronan Mullen, whom I'd met in Vancouver some years ago. He is a solid Catholic, involved in politics in the tradition of the great Catholic statesmen of old, and is doing great things in the upper house of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament.

Speaking of great things, I was first introduced to Senator Mullen—then the press spokesman for the Archbishop of Dublin—through my old friend from Prince George, Rob Fuller. I met Rob more than twenty years ago when he was a seminarian. After leaving the seminary, he met a lovely school teacher from Galway who was working as a lay missionary in Prince George. They married in Galway (I concelebrated on the occasion) and now live there with their four children.

Anything witty that I tell you about Rob—who would be a true "character" if only he were Irish by birth rather than adoption—will bring wittier-still retaliation on his blog, I will limit myself to his remarkable gifts as a Catholic layman. He writes elegantly and eloquently on his blog about faith and life, where he is quick to point out weaknesses in the Church, while arguing cogently in person and on his blog Faith and Life for what he believes would make things better. But he does more than offer opinions—he has the courage of his convictions, and a while back he defended his own bishop to the point of handing out flyers on the steps of the cathedral.

(All of this is accomplished with a certain cheek, as the English—and perhaps the Irish?—say. Rob is, after all, a forty-something year old man who has managed to surreptitiously short-sheet my bed in three countries over a period of two decades!)

Being with Rob and Mary and their brood was another sign of hope for me; a strong lay spirituality and identity is an essential ingredient of reform in the Church, and they are fine examples of that.

There's much more to say, but I think this is enough for now. Suffice to say I arrived in Valencia for the start of our World Youth Day pilgrimage having already experienced the power of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of young people (and of priests of all ages!).