By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2011
Travelers to World Youth Day slept on couches when hotels ignored their reservations, were soaked by a violent rainstorm and faced long lines to see cultural landmarks.
But the amazing thing is these pilgrims from metro Atlanta treasure their experience and are anxious to attend the next World Youth Day in Brazil.
Grace Lee, who attends Korean Martyrs Church, Doraville, and is a student at Georgia State University, called the experience “somewhat of a madhouse.”
“But a madhouse where everyone is mad for Christ,” she said in an email. “Everyone that you are around has the same common interest/goal, whether it be to grow in faith, to get as close to Pope Benedict as possible, or just to experience intense days of fellowship.”
Scores of women and men from the Archdiocese of Atlanta joined the nearly 30,000 registered pilgrims from the United States who traveled to Madrid, Spain, and Europe. Overall, a reported 2 million boisterous faithful visited the Spanish capital from Aug. 16-21 and celebrated their faith. The highlight of the event for many was Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.
A treasured memory for Father Tim Gallagher, parochial vicar at St. Pius X Church, Conyers, was the burst of rain and wind that disrupted the vigil with the pope. Folks who earlier wilted under the summer sun were suddenly doused without shelter to keep dry.
A feeling of camaraderie grew among the hundreds of thousands in the crowd through it all.
“When the storm hit, everyone shared umbrellas and parkas in an attempt to stay dry. And the Holy Father remained in his chair, like Peter the Rock,” said Father Gallagher in an email. “The whole event resulted in bringing the crowd closer together in true solidarity around our pope. And, in addition, the rain settled the dust and cooled things down, and after the storm had passed, the wind dried the soaked participants so that it made for a very comfortable night.”
Lee was also stuck in the middle of the bad weather. She huddled with a group of girls to outlast the half-hour storm.
“As he began to speak, Pope Benedict said that we had all endured an adventure together. Being able to be a part of that experience with Pope Benedict was such a blessing,” she said in an email.
For An Tran, a member of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross, who was attending his first World Youth Day, a side trip to France is one of his favorite memories. His group of Vietnamese-American Catholics visited the headquarters of the Paris Foreign Missions Society. It was from that religious organization that priests were sent out in the 19th century to Vietnam and other parts of Asia to spread the faith, where many of them were martyred.
“I felt in me a deep appreciation for the people of France. At that moment, I felt something greater,” he said. “Because of the society, the people of Vietnam received the faith. It is a very profound memory,” said Tran, who works in the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship.
The trip was never considered a standard European summer vacation, but a religious pilgrimage. And the travelers said they kept that in mind, letting the days unfold when plans fell apart, saving money by buying food cheap, sleeping in hostels.
Father Gallagher said he set out each day with an agenda, but often times long lines or the unexpected disrupted those plans. But he said often those were opportunities to greet a stranger and share stories of faith or come across a church he wouldn’t have visited.
Lee said her group from Georgia State University stayed in a convent outside Madrid, sleeping on floor mats in classrooms with no air conditioning.
“But being able to be around 2 million Catholic young adults was incredible,” she said.
Tran also was struck by the crowds and the enthusiasm. People waved flags and danced, he said. When groups waited for subways, chants would break out, calling out “Viva Papa” and “Benedicto.”
Language and national barriers disappeared beneath the shared Catholic faith, he said.
“I didn’t see any barriers to us. It was like we knew each other for so long,” he said.