What did you think of the coverage on Facebook of World Youth Day?

I was really excited by what I saw on Facebook, and I think that all the commentary on-line about the Pope’s visit was very positive indeed. . One of the most interesting  things that struck me about the media coverage was the fascinating article in the ‘Guardian’ by Andrew Brown – I think he’s the religious editor - who is not himself a Catholic. He wrote a very positive article, pointing out that ‘actually with such a large gathering of young people in the wake of all the riots, the BBC should be taking notice of two million young people being peaceful - completely contradictory to what was happening ten days earlier in London.’ He seemed surprised that no-one was taking more notice of the world’s largest gathering of young people.’

Perhaps the problem is that some journalists tend to get much more excited, photographers, too, when trouble brews, rather than when there’s a harmonious gathering of young people. Yes, they do. But I think, too, there’s potentially some stereotypes about Catholic young people that they’re rather frumpy kind of characters, and maybe that’s what this type of journalist thinks a gathering of young Catholics might be like. But actually when they get to Madrid, they realise that these are perfectly normal young people who are celebrating their Faith.
Did you go with a group from the Diocese?

This was my third World Youth Day, and this time I went with a parish in London – ‘Notre Dame,’ Leicester Square. My friend was organising the group, who are attached to the European Marists. There were about 1,000 of them, and we were all in a Sports Hall - it was fantastic!

So did you have any particular expectations of how this experience might impact on you? What were you looking for, Poppy?

You know, often in your day-to-day life, it can be quite hard to live the Faith as a young person. Most of my school-friends are practising Catholics, but not many of my university friends are. I do have Catholic friends through some of the other work that I do, but it’s really encouraging when you can see how universal the Church is when you go on a gathering like World Youth Day. I’ve been on a couple now, so I know what to expect.

But the first time that I went on a World Youth Day, I was completely amazed by this gathering – I couldn’t believe that there were so many young people there, because in the churches and in the parish you get used to seeing not very many. Then  when you go to World Youth Day it gives you great hope when you realise that these are all young people like me who are trying to live the Faith, having the same difficulties, the same challenges, and it’s very encouraging to have the leadership of the Pope and the Church.  I’ve also made some excellent friends over the years from World Youth Day, including this year.

And are you still in touch with them?

‘Absolutely. I’ve kept in contact with all of them through Facebook and we meet up as well.’

Going back to when you first arrived in Madrid, did you go straight to the Plaza di Cibeles, where the Pope was making his address to everyone?

Well. World Youth Day is always full of talk and there are lots of events going on.  We’d actually gone to an event organised by the Sisters of Life before the Pope’s address, so we got to the Plaza di Cibeles a little bit late.  There were so many crowds everywhere, but we did make it there with a few other friends, and could see him on the big screen. His address was really wonderful and for me it was just a hugely encouraging and uplifting experience. Everyone in the crowd from different countries was talking to one another, so it was really quite a unique atmosphere.

Were many national flags being waved?

They had some Korean flags, and at the opening address there was a Chinese cohort right near the front, so their flag kept coming onto the big screen. I was just amazed to see the Chinese flag and I thought ‘Wow’, these are Christian brothers and sisters that have really had to struggle enormously even to get to World Youth Day. I remember in Australia at World Youth Day, meeting and speaking with Chinese Catholics, and they said that they had to get their passports through a friend of a friend. Even when they were boarding the plane, they weren’t sure whether they would actually be allowed to go to Australia for World Youth Day, and I imagine that it must have been a similar experience for them trying to get to Spain. Whenever you think of whatever challenges you might have in your daily Christian life, these Catholics in countries like China have a much, much bigger challenge. It’s quite humbling really to meet Catholics from parts of the world where it’s not so easy to practise the Faith, so they make the effort to go on World Youth Days.

I gather from the pictures on Facebook that the weather was very hot.

It was roasting - about 40 degrees - which was great, but you did have to drink plenty of water. In the pilgrim packs, they were giving you food and drinks vouchers, so it wasn’t an issue at all.  And it was quite fun really when firemen came and hosed you down and when people came past and poured water over you – it was just happening all the time. Then during the video we had an unexpected and most dramatic downpour and during the Pope’s address there was this huge thunderstorm! People, unfortunately, hadn’t come prepared. There was also so much wind that we were not able to receive Holy Communion, which was a bit sad, as the hosts would have been damaged.. So, apart from the theatrical and someone described it as a Fatima-like thunderstorm, the weather was fantastic, and I think that the sunshine always brings a smile to people’s faces.

Thinking about the controversy there's been about the Pope and problems of abuse not having been entirely sorted out, were there any troublemakers or dissidents in the crowd.

Yes. Apparently, earlier in the week there was a protest of about 5,000 people, which I think made it to the News. When I was there I didn’t see that protest, but after the Pope’s main address in the big square in central Madrid, there were about 100 or so protesters there who were holding up placards that said,’ No to clerical sex abuse.’ So I walked past and thought, “Well I’m against that, too.’ But really with the whole sex abuse controversy and scandal I do think that the Pope has been absolutely instrumental in the reform of the Church, and it’s been really inspiring all that he’s been doing since he’s been working for the CDF, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.  He’s been getting all these reforms in place, cleaning up the Church and putting in place a number of different practices. One of these is that he’s basically speeded up the process of Canon law for sex abuse cases. We have to remember, though, that we are talking about a very small number of priests, and whilst no-one could ever justify or condone such abhorrent behaviour, we have to see it in the context of the whole Church.

I’d very much like to hear about the programme that you followed. But, first of all, can you tell me what music was played for the papal Mass?

The music was very traditional actually; a lot of it was in Latin.  There was an orchestra and choir that I think they must have formed from young people all round the world, but I’m not quite sure how they organised the rehearsals!  What I thought they did very well, and I remember noticing it in the Stations of the Cross, also in the Vigil and the final masses, were the hymns in different languages. The main theme tune for World Youth Day has a verse in every language, so they’ve taken a common English, French and Spanish hymn and put them altogether for the different services, so that when you were at ‘Stations’ for a few hours you would be able to sing along really well at least one hymn, which brought everyone together. All the English were singing, ‘Majesty, worship his Majesty,’ and then straight after that there was a Spanish hymn, so they had organised the music really well. 
In all the events, that is the Stations in the main square, the Vigil, and in the final Mass, they had the choir and orchestra to the right of the main altar area where the Pope was seated, and, of course, they had it relayed by loudspeakers. But it was really beautiful.

After that opening address by Pope Benedict, what were the main events during the rest of the time you spent in Madrid?

 I think that was on the Wednesday or Thursday, then on Friday we had a catechesis session in the morning. The format is that a Bishop or a Cardinal from another country comes and gives you a Reflection on the theme for World Youth Day, which, this year, was‘Firm in the Faith.’

Then there’s a question and answer session with this bishop or cardinal about the Catholic Faith, and some of the questions are really interesting.  They were addressing some of the controversial issues that people have about their Faith when they go back home and the topics that their friends bring up in the pub. So it’s great to have this unique opportunity to speak to someone so senior in the Church, 1–1 almost!

We were with the Whole Emmanuel community, who I think were French-based, and they’re quite charismatic. There were about 400 or 500 of us in this church; you’d have Mass, and you’d have time to go to confession. But it was really so interesting, as there were people from all parts of the English-speaking world; they would be from African countries, some Canadians and I remember we had some Americans. It was great. Some of the catechesis sessions were much bigger than that; I remember there was an English-speaking one that we didn’t get to, as it was right in the centre of Madrid in a big stadium, which seated about 15-20,000 people. So I imagine that they would have quite a prominent Cardinal leading that on different days and that must have been quite an experience, too. The catechesis sessions I’ve been to have generally been around the 500-600, but I’m sure that the larger sessions were good as well, when you get a different Bishop or Cardinal each day.  On one of the days we had the archbishop from Durban in South Africa, which was really interesting.

Did you ask any questions?

 No. I spent a lot of time listening though. I think that one of the issues we were talking about was homosexuality in the Catholic Church. For young people, it ‘s one where their friends will always say ‘Oh, the Church is discriminating against these people,’ because they don’t understand that the Church’s message is ultimately rooted in love and not about condemning anyone.

So what was the really high point of World Youth Day for you?

For me I think it was the Stations of the Cross this year that were the highlight. The ‘Stations’ for me were very, very, moving, also the Reflections. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were able to get right at the front, so we could see the Pope very clearly and what was going on. I think that I was able to engage with it a bit more than if I was just in a field looking at it on a screen.

 There would be a beautiful prayer and then we would pray for Christians who are struggling to practice their Faith in countries like Iraq, and they did have a group of Christians from Iraq carrying the Cross from one Station to the next. At another Station, we offered this up for Catholics around the world who are struggling, suffering from Aids and other diseases, with people suffering from Aids, carrying the Cross from one Station to the next. It made the prayer feel very real, very concrete. Often when you pray for these Intentions it can seem very far removed from reality.

But I think that those Stations were the most moving that I had ever participated in. That for me was definitely a highlight of the whole experience.

Was that your most memorable feeling?

Yes.  I think so, because it gave you a sense of being united in prayer with the whole church, the universal church. It was quite incredible, but I must say that the Vigil and the final Mass are unbelievable, because it’s there that you get the scale of just how big the whole World Youth Day is. 

When you’re in Madrid at one of these other events you can’t really gauge how many other people there are around, but when you’re in a big field and you can just see people all around you, it’s there that you think ‘Wow!  I think this is what Heaven is going to be like!’ The Vigil is very moving as well, when you have the Pope kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament and everyone else is kneeling behind the Pope – you know, 1.5 – 2 million people – that really is quite something! You do think that: Gosh! This is what it will be like one day please God!

In the Vigil itself, I remember going for a walk to find the toilets and I bumped into so many people that I knew, just randomly in the field. So even though it felt very vast, it also felt very familiar. When you’re seeing all these people from groups around the UK amongst 2 million people, you wouldn’t think that you’d bump into your friends, would you?

Thank you, Poppy. 

If you want to follow up the article that Poppy read by Andrew Brown, follow the link