IX. Seeking a challenge
The pinnacle of World Youth Day -- as I adamantly related to my fellow chaperones who were a bit reluctant to participate in this pinnacle experience -- is the Saturday vigil and Sunday Mass, both with the Holy Father. This was my third World Youth Day, and so I've had my share of adventurous overnight vigil experiences, as well as powerful Sunday Mass encounters with the Vicar of Christ. Madrid's experience, however, was in a class all its own.
Most of our group left the hotel at 12:45 pm, walking to the Metro with our backpacks full of overnight supplies and our hands full of grocery bags. We each had our 1.5 liter bottle of water, a quantity that would have to be doubled or tripled in order to counteract the possibility of dehydration and heat exhaustion that was imminent in Madrid's extreme heat. The Metro, of course, was jammed with pilgrims. I watched sweat literally drip off of people's faces and onto the floor. But eventually -- perhaps after close to an hour -- we arrived at our stop.
But the Metro was not the end of the journey. We next began the walking portion of the pilgrimage, traversing a couple of miles with our gear in tow. And what a beautiful sight! Yes, it was hot. Yes, we were tired. Yes, the backpacks became heavy. But what a wonderful, jolting image of our pilgrimage to heaven -- thousands of people from every possible background and country, joining together in their walk toward a common goal, encouraging each other and meeting one another and enjoying the walk on the way to the destination. We had an image of the saints too -- the men and women who stood from their tall apartment windows, splashing water on the pilgrims below. There they were -- one's who had "arrived" at a destination and were equipped with more than we currently had -- and they were encouraging us and cheering us and giving us what they could. They hung shower heads out of the window, emptied cold water from bottles on us and used their cupped hands to disperse refreshing water out of buckets. With the extreme heat, even a small splash of cold was a welcome encouragement along the way. One women stood at the side of the road and quickly dunked pilgrims' hats in her icy bucket, giving them some cold water to last awhile.
We continued our trek to the airfield, where the vigil would be held. Eventually we made it to the line heading to "security" checks. The firemen rode around in trucks and hosed us down with water. We made it onto the field and scurried to find our section, C-4, as quickly as possible.
We arrived at C-4 (this whole process had taken more than three hours), and were rather stressed to find no home for our meager sheets, blow-up rafts and ponchos-turned-blankets. There was a small strip of empty land -- perhaps 10 feet long by 2 feet wide -- that we decided to claim. But the Italians around the small space were not pleased. "Walking path! For walking!" they cried, gesturing, and placing their hands in their hair in frustration. We argued with them for a bit, but how does one argue when neither party really speaks the other's language? They wanted "walking space," and World Youth Day veteran that I am, I wanted them to know that "walking space" does not exist within the vocabulary of the Saturday vigil. They tried arguing by kindness, "Por favore, you cannot fit nine people there!" And I calmly replied, "Actually, we have twelve. And in any event, where else do you suppose we can go?"
We pitched our clear tarp on the ground, piled up our backpacks and then realized that it truly was 102 degrees in Madrid that day. Oh the heat! There was no shade, no cold water, no more fire hoses gushing free showers. There was a great big sun beating down on the masses, heating up our plastic tarp and leaving us exhausted.
"Water! Drink more water!" I had to command my group every 10 minutes. We had experienced a case of dehydration the day before, and I wanted to ensure that everyone stayed healthy in this particular predicament. Still, commanding others to drink water that feels as if it were made for hot chocolate or Ramen noodles, not a refreshing drink, is a bit of a challenge. When two of our pilgrims returned with our World Youth Day meal sacks, we took the ham and salami that was still cold, and held it to our faces for a few seconds of refreshment.
"Whose bright idea was it to have World Youth Day in Madrid?" I asked myself. And I think we all prayed for a break in the heat. Oh yes, I think the Lord wanted to show us that He does listen and He does answer prayer.
Our youth are seeking challenge. They want to be called to more. They want to be held to a high standard. They want much to be expected of them.