Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

A Celebration of Faith and Joy


Alton J. Pelowski

Singing and waving flags of their home countries, young people from around the world filled the Palacio de Deportes as it opened its doors to World Youth Day pilgrims in Madrid. From Aug. 16-19, the 12,000-seat arena, located in the heart of the city, was host to the Love and Life Centre: A Home for English-Speaking Pilgrims.

On three consecutive mornings, youth quickly filled the arena to capacity as they gathered for catechesis and Mass. More than 40 hours of programming at the site — leading up to and organized around major World Youth Day events — featured dynamic panel discussions and keynote addresses, musical performances, and a eucharistic healing hour. Elsewhere in the venue, pilgrims packed meeting rooms for breakout talks, walked through bustling exhibition halls and took time to visit chapels set aside for silent prayer.

The Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life co-hosted the official catechesis and youth festival site, which welcomed those who traveled to Spain from throughout the English-speaking world. Among the more than 500,000 registered pilgrims, there were some 30,000 English-speaking delegates from the United States, 6,000 from Canada, and many more from Australia, Great Britain and numerous other countries.

Youth quickly filled the 12,000-seat arena to capacity as they gathered for catechesis and Mass, which featured dynamic panel discussions and keynote addresses, musical performances, and a eucharistic healing hour.  

In anticipation of celebrations with Pope Benedict XVI later in the week, the Love and Life Centre’s programs helped to teach, entertain and form tens of thousands of these pilgrims amid a joyous, faith-filled atmosphere. Organizers recorded approximately 100,000 visits over the four-day period.


The Knights of Columbus has been present at every international World Youth Day celebration since Blessed John Paul II came to Denver in 1993. John Paul II first instituted World Youth Day in 1985, and since that time, the event has included major international celebrations every two or three years.

At World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, the Order collaborated with the Sisters of Life to host the “Love and Life Site” on the campus of a local university. The success of that collaboration prompted plans to organize the premiere English-language site in Madrid.

In order to better serve the pilgrims invited to this much larger venue, the Knights and Sisters solicited help from a number of co-sponsoring organizations: Holy Cross Family Ministries, Salt + Light Television, the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), the Apostleship of Prayer and World Youth Alliance.

In addition, about two-dozen college Knights were among the approximately 250 volunteers who assisted in the setup and operation of the site. Numerous priests and religious sisters — including Jesuit and Holy Cross priests from cosponsoring organizations and 48 Sisters of Life — were also present at the Love and Life Centre to attend to the pilgrims’ spiritual needs.

Many of the staff and volunteers organizing the site were alumni of previous World Youth Days.

“My grace to say ‘yes’ to my vocation was in Rome [in 2000], and I’ve been to every World Youth Day since then,” said Father Columba Maria Jordan. A native of Ireland who was ordained for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal last May, Father Columba assisted with leading worship music during the Love and Life Centre’s activities. What he most looked forward to, however, was “being a priest for the first time at a World Youth Day and hearing lots of confessions.”

(Top to bottom) Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson at the Love and Life Centre. • Supreme Chaplain Bishop William Lori processes with a monstrance. • Sisters of Life participate in activities. • Alexander Acha, internationally acclaimed artist, performs at the MarianFest.

To facilitate the thousands of confessions heard at the site over a four-day period, the Sisters of Life coordinated confessional spaces, as well as liturgies and a eucharistic adoration chapel named after Blessed John Paul II. They also organized a special audiovisual exhibit titled “You & Me,” which shared four testimonies from people who made life-changing decisions.

“The exhibit begins with people’s openness to share where they’ve been,” said Sister Elizabeth Ann, the exhibit’s coordinator. “In many cases, they have made decisions they regret. But then they speak of a choice they made now, a choice for love, and what the Lord did with their ‘yes.’”

As more than 8,000 visitors to the site made their way through, the sisters were on hand to talk to pilgrims seeking support — especially if they were seeking healing from painful experiences such as abortion.

“It doesn’t take much,” added Sister Elizabeth Ann. “People are thirsting to know that there is hope and that they can start over. And we have seen a lot of hope on their faces.”


Following special gatherings of Canadian and Australian pilgrims, the Love and Life Centre’s programming officially kicked off Tuesday, Aug. 16, with music from the Catholic band L’Angelus, a keynote address by Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries and a “Catholic Underground” holy hour.

On Wednesday, Curtis Martin, president and founder of FOCUS, delivered a keynote address on the “universal call to holiness.” He noted that Pope Benedict, in his inaugural homily in 2005, challenged youth to lives of greatness, made possible through faith in Christ.

“The challenge is that you can’t become great and remain comfortable,” Martin said. “You have to live differently — above the world, not being drawn down into the things of the world.”

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia underlined this challenge during a panel discussion on religious freedom that followed the talk.

“Our job, and especially your job as young leaders, is to let God change us, and then through us, God will change others and the world,” said the archbishop. “We win the world by winning one soul at a time for Jesus Christ and his Church, starting with ourselves.”

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson then told the audience that believers have the responsibility to demonstrate that Christianity is not opposed to happiness, as some people might claim.

“Christianity promotes human happiness, and the people who follow the truth of Jesus Christ celebrate their lives and live joyful lives,” he said. “That is what being an authentic witness means today.”

Over the next several days, this theme of being a joyful witness of the Gospel continued in homilies, talks and discussion panels about topics such as the civilization of love, the theology of the body, and faith and entertainment. It was a message that resonated with volunteers and pilgrims alike.

“The one common thing we can all take away from [World Youth Day] is the fire of love that we have for Jesus Christ and for our faith, and wanting to take that out to the rest of the world,” said Stephen Hart, a member of Creighton University Council 6268 in Omaha, Neb., and a recent graduate. “I think the biggest thing I hope to gain from this is a deeper sense of gratitude for my faith. Seeing all of these people here and recognizing the love that they have for their faith has been really powerful for me.”


As the Love and Life Centre’s programs drew to a close on Friday, the largest World Youth Day events were about to begin.

On Friday evening, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Madrid as Pope Benedict XVI led the Stations of the Cross, which incorporated elaborate Spanish sculptures that are used during Holy Week processions. Fourteen young people representing countries that have experienced significant suffering in recent years — such as Japan, Haiti and Sudan — accompanied the pope by carrying the official World Youth Day Cross between each station.

The next day, more than 1 million youth trekked to the airfield of Cuatro Vientos, located southwest of Madrid, for a prayer vigil led by Pope Benedict. The pope said to his young listeners, “If you abide in the love of Christ, rooted in the faith, you will encounter, even amid setbacks and suffering, the source of true happiness and joy.”

As storm clouds loomed overhead, pilgrims braved wind and heavy rain to pray together, in solidarity with the pope. Benedict thanked the pilgrims for their “joy and resistance” and, as the rains subsided, concluded the vigil with a time of silent eucharistic adoration.

The pilgrims — representing nearly 200 countries — spent the night at Cuatro Vientos and awoke to celebrate World Youth Day 2011’s closing Mass with Pope Benedict.

The many who had visited the Love and Life Centre no doubt recognized in their experience of the preceding days a beautiful foreshadowing of the grand celebration in Cuatro Vientos and of the pope’s message to youth. Thanks to the teachings they heard and the grace they encountered at the Love and Life Centre, they were better prepared to experience their common faith and the lasting joy that comes from an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Additional information about the Love and Life Centre, including photos and video, can be found at wydenglishsite.org and wydcentral.org.


Alton J. Pelowski is the managing editor of Columbia.