08 August 2023, The Tablet

Dust and rocks amid a multitude – how World Youth Day became an engrossing act of penance

Part Three: Diary of a Catholic seminarian attending World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dust and rocks amid a multitude – how World Youth Day became an engrossing act of penance

World Youth Day, Lisbon.
Both photos courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Plymouth.

World Youth Day draws ever nearer. We come to the Friday of our week in Lisbon and it feels like things kick up another gear as we enter into a sort of Triduum, beginning with a Stations of the Cross, and culminating in the Saturday night Vigil and the Papal Mass on Sunday.

The further through the week we get the thicker the crowds get, so if Edward the VII park seemed full for Wednesday’s welcome ceremony, now it is heaving. I have been away by myself in the morning writing another blog entry, planning to rejoin the main body of the group there, but that plan seems wildly optimistic now as I attempt to negotiate the densely packed maze of cordons and security barriers, working towards a live location pin on Google Maps. I finally have to admit defeat about halfway up the park, having gone up a cul-de-sac only to find the crowds behind me too thick to backtrack through. Fortunately, I have ended up in front of one of the big screens, and so have a better view of the proceedings than many, as Pope Francis makes his way back through the crowds and is assisted to his place on the mainstage.

I am curious as to how the Stations will work in this unorthodox setting. What we get is a rather ingeniously staged production, enacted by dancers moving a wooden cross up a sort of reredos of scaffolding behind the mainstage, with spoken meditations in various languages, accompanied by an orchestra and choir, and intercut with prerecorded testimonies from Catholics who have different experiences of living at the margins of society. I should admit that I have a bit of an allergy to modern interpretive dance, but that’s my problem really. Overall, it’s a thoughtful and at times very moving piece of work.

As I try to make my way out of the park at the end of the Stations a fight breaks out next to me. An annoying feature of these big crowds is that large groups tend to form into long human chains, each person clinging on to the rucksack of the one in front. These chains create chaos when their paths intersect, or even worse when they converge on a bottleneck with smaller groups and stragglers caught up in the middle and dragged along with them. Some stewards at the top of a concrete stairway desperately try to break up the chains as they threaten to cause an avalanche, and one of them is rewarded with a sharp punch from a seemingly panicked group leader. It’s an ugly moment and everyone seems a little shocked. The general mood of the crowds in Lisbon has been one of charity and good humour; even those nationalities with a tendency to push to the front of queues will do so with a smile.

Saturday is a quiet day. The only item on our agenda is to make our way out to the Vigil site for the evening. We are all much preoccupied by the temperature outside which has reached 40°. For any English person this alone would be an anecdote to dine out on forevermore, but we are faced with the prospect of an eight-kilometre walk to the site, and tensions are running high. A succession of small war councils take place in the hotel foyer throughout the day to plan our course of action. We pack our flimsy WYD rucksacks, prioritising water and snacks which are salty but not too salty. The thought of bringing a sleeping bag is laughable. I joke on one of the WhatsApp group chats about how I am only packing a light jumper.

We set off at about 5 o’clock to avoid the worst of the heat, travelling first by train and then on foot. I have one of our six litre bottles of water in one hand, which is balanced by one of our specially provided pilgrim’s lunch bags in the other. It’s a heavy load, but that’s a good thing because the pain in my hands makes the heat seem less consequential. As we journey on and the throng of pilgrims around us thickens, the journey takes on a strangely dream like quality as we walk down a dusty, litter-strewn motorway in a dense, slow-moving river of humanity, the flags of all the nations fluttering overhead. Even the pitifully drab banner of the Diocese of Plymouth seems to take on a sort of quiet nobility in this company. A friend from Seminary calls out to me and we exchange a few words before a current sweeps him up ahead and out of sight.

In the distance we can make out the enormous main stage and altar where Mass will be said, and in front of it the beginnings of the crowd that stretches off into the distance. We roll on by until we come to our off-ramp and peel away into sector C14.

Having no prior World Youth Day experience, I have not known what to expect at any point in our pilgrimage thus far, but I realise on arrival here that I actually did have a number of quite deep-rooted expectations. One of them was grass, on which I gratefully fling down my tired body at the end of our journey. The other was space; enough for our group to sit about on while we enjoyed each other’s company. I suppose I had imagined a cosy little hillock on which we would sit about laughing, praying rosaries, and sharing meaningful moments.

What we find is dust. Dust and sharp rocks, and a multitude so thick that there is no hope of finding a patch big enough for our whole group. We have to settle down in a string of vaguely proximate spaces big for a person or two at best. My own pitch is initially just large enough for me to spread the microfibre towel I have brought as my bedroll, folded in two, and for me to sit down on it cross-legged, with my rucksack next to me. After a bit of negotiation and wiggling, and after picking out the biggest and sharpest of the rocks beneath me, I am able to fully unfold my towel and lie down on top of it. The microfibres of my towel, which make it in all other respects such an excellent travel accessory, are only able to provide at best microcushioning, and so its main purpose is to protect my cloths.

Once I have had what I want of my rations, and once the opening ceremony, relayed onto a nearby big screen, has concluded, there seems to be little else to do other than lie down and wait for morning. Sleep is out of the question. Apart from the hard ground there is a film about environmentalism playing across all the big screens that repeats over and over into the small hours. When that is not playing there is the omnipresent World Youth Day 2023 song, Há Pressa no Ar, the accompanying hand gestures for which are now imprinted in my brainstem like Brighton in a stick of rock. There are also the many surrounding groups of Spanish pilgrims whose antipathy for bedtime I am all too familiar with from my Propaedeutic year in Valladolid.

I settle down instead to wait for the dawn. I have a water bottle for a pillow and I have my rosary, and since I don’t entertain the possibility of sleep, I feel oddly at peace with the situation. It’s may not be what I had imagined, but it is actually the ideal penitential experience with which to round off this pilgrimage. Strange thoughts pass through my mind; I thank God for the uncomfortable ground beneath me that keeps me from falling into the Earth’s molten core. In the end the night passes so quickly that I’m not sure I didn’t sleep for a little while at least.

The sun rises on the last day of our adventure, World Youth Day itself. I stand up and do some stretches and note that my joints have borne up better than I would have expected. People all round me are rising and stretching, except for some of the Spanish who are just now going to bed.

Now we come to it, the climax of our time in Portugal, the Papal Mass, attended by 1.5 million Catholics, (that’s roughly one Bahrain, two Bhutans or three and a half Icelands). Like so many of my experiences here, I watch it on a big screen, make out what snatches I can with my terrible Spanish, and try to focus on my own participation, in spite of every kind of distraction happening around me. What I will remember more is the night spent lying on rocks that proceeded it. And I will remember the mobs of flag waving youths charging about the Lisbon underground, the kindness and good cheer of my fellow pilgrims, the heat of Portugal in August, and our time with our host family in Viana. I thank God for these things and the little gifts, too many to list, sprinkled along the way.

I have been a tiny part, a less than a millionth part, of a very great work of the Church. For all the occasional cheesiness, for all the mess and sweat, the rowdiness and the hot pants, this has been an act of piety on a vast scale in a world that would like to forget about God.

What do you think?


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