Singing, chanting and wearing their national colors, thousands of young people from throughout Canada filled the floor and lower levels of the Palacio de Deportes Tuesday, Aug. 16, soon after the Love and Life Centre officially opened its doors to World Youth Day pilgrims in Madrid.
The Canadian Bishops Conference Gathering began with pilgrims processing to the main stage with two significant symbols of World Youth Day — the World Youth Day Icon, which John Paul II entrusted to youth on Palm Sunday in 2003, and the World Youth Day Cross, which has been carried around the world and has played a significant role in World Youth Day since 1984.
The Canadian celebration was introduced by Father Thomas Rosica, who served as the chief organizer of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, and included a prayer service led by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, musical performances, and several short addresses and video presentations.
Afterward, Australian youth poured into the arena for their own national gathering, which likewise included prayer, music, and joy-filled displays of faith, fellowship and patriotism.
Many of the Australian youth present attended the last international World Youth Day, which took place in Sydney in 2008.
“World Youth Day ’08 was in my home town and I had an amazing week and had an amazing experience,” said WYD pilgrim Ronnie Maree, wearing an Australian flag draped over his shoulders. “I came here and wanted to re-experience that. We arrived at 2 a.m., and we’ve already met some awesome people from all over the world.”
His sister, Connie, also knew she wanted to make the pilgrimage to Spain. “As soon as the pope said ‘Madrid, Spain,’ at World Youth Day ’08, we knew we would come,” she said.
L’Angelus, a talented young musical group from Louisiana, then led the official “Kick-Off” of the Love and Life Centre with their unique blend of music traditions, from Cajun fiddle tunes and New Orleans influenced R&B to Catholic hymns.
The first keynote address of the Love and Life Centre was delivered by Father Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and creator of The Catholicism Project. He presented a half-hour clip of the newly produced 10-part documentary series titled “Catholicism,” which is scheduled to be released this fall, and spoke about the rich history of the Catholic faith around the world.
In preparation for a eucharistic holy hour, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., then gave a reflection about the importance of prayer. “The more we know God, the more we love God,” he said, adding that it is impossible to know and love God unless a person makes time for prayer.
He explained that an essential requirement of making and keeping friends is to spend time with them, and the same is true in the case of a person’s friendship with God.
Following the “Catholic Underground”-style holy hour, featuring worship music led by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, pilgrims made their way toward the city’s iconic Plaza de Cibeles, where World Youth Day’s opening Mass.
The hot Spanish sun set upon the tens of thousands of youth who had made their way down the overcrowded streets, waving the flags of their home countries amid the chaotic, yet joyful atmosphere.
The opening Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid, with approximately 8,000 priests concelebrating. In his homily, Cardinal Rouco encouraged the World Youth Day pilgrims to seek an encounter with Jesus Christ.
“He is the only one who can understand you and lead you to the truth giving life that never ends, to give you happiness, true love,” he said.
Following Mass, Cardinal Stanislaw Ryłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, greeted the youth, saying, “You are gathered here in Madrid after having come from the most remote corners of the planet.”
He continued, “You have come to say aloud to the whole world – and in particular to Europe which is showing signs of being very lost — your unwavering “yes”! Yes, faith is possible. It is in fact a wonderful adventure that allows us to discover the magnitude and beauty of our lives.”