I had received a personal invitation to World Youth Day (WYD) from my friend; Br Philip-Thomas, to join them and their small group from St Anthony’s, Forest Gate and St Patrick’s Soho. I had always been intrigued by and perhaps a little dismissive of WYD. I realised this was the last one I could be somewhat classified as ‘youth’ and that Lisbon was near enough to traverse the continent without the need of sprouting wings.Lesson 1. A personal invitation goes a long way.
We stayed our first night in Paris on what at the time appeared to be the hardest floor known to mankind. It was oppressively solid. Yet as we discovered on the return journey, all that required to make it more comfortable, was not a mattress, but a week at World Youth Day.
Meeting our French compatriots we boarded our coach, which the drivers christened ‘John Paul’. Not in honour of me, but Saint Pope JPII who founded World youth day.
The coach journey was perhaps the Brits first experience (if they were not aware from birth) of being culturally inept (or eroded). It appears the French have a repertoire of traditional rowdy, cheerful, foot-stomping chants, we had Jerusalem, the Beatles… and ABBA? We gave it our best.
Lesson 2. We need to revive the art of communal singing, rather than propping up a music industry that has had it’s day.
Despite having to borrow numbers from our Swedish cousins, the entente cordial remained high. Entente Cordial (Robinsons should make this in an attempt to patch up Brexit), is essential when you are trapped in a coach for 24 hours. We were warned not to use the toilet except in grave danger of ‘little emergencies’, but certainly NEVER ‘bigger emergencies’. Being considerate of one’s neighbour while journeying in a tin can is not discernibly different, in my mind, to ensuring that our common home does not become “an immense pile of filth” * of a speck of dust on pilgrimage through the cosmos.
We were no longer strangers. There were no ‘emergencies’. Sleep was intermittent. We woke up to a gradually changing sequence of landscapes.
Lesson 3. To get to know people, waste time with them, a coach ride is one method of doing this. Getting there as quick as possible deprives you of late night crowd-surfing in service stations. Coach 1, Plane 0.
Finding accommodation for 1.6 million pilgrims in a city that only has a population of 3 million is a challenge, and despite a few hiccups the City swallowed the pilgrims like the sea flowing up rivers to the tributaries, where host families, schools and parishes fed, washed and housed us.
Having checked in and dumped our bags in the morning (no shower yet), we returned from a days adventures (absolutely stinky) to find we would have to move accommodation and the group would have to be split up. Exhaustion and a sense of anxiety were universal. As we were together on pilgrimage these feelings became manifest as sense of adventure and spontaneous singing by streetlight passed the time.
With the uncertainty hanging over us, the Portuguese volunteers worked tirelessly to find the men somewhere to stay. We were in limbo. We longed to just settle down to sleep on the cobbled streets of Lisbon under the stars.
Finally the men were bundled into vans driven by a group of Dutch pilgrims to a mystery primary school some miles away, where we would be staying with groups from the USA, New Zealand, Taiwan and The Netherlands.
Arriving just before midnight we were desperate for a shower.
‘I will take you’ said the volunteer ‘they close at midnight’. I indicated that she could just show me where they were and ‘how could a shower close at midnight?’
The showers were 10 minutes walk from the school in the shower block of concrete basket ball court with a high wire fence attended by volunteers. It was the best shower in the world at that precise moment. Despite the communal nature of the shower, we did well, some rumours were there was a group of 70 pilgrims sharing the one shower cubicle (not a Guinness world record, they showered one at a time (I assume)).
It dawned on me that in a different context, if I were a refugee or at the mercy of authorities in a similar setting, the exhaustion and anxiety would manifest itself very differently.
Lesson 4. How prepared are we for a disaster? This was fine for a pilgrimage, but do our schools, parishes and other buildings accommodate the needs of less fortunate pilgrims in the journey of life? How accommodating are we to those in need? Do we know those in need on our doorstep?
Five stars for the inn that had no room!
The volunteers in Lisbon slept during the day to attend to us at all hours of the day, missing out on the activities in the city. To me these volunteers were world youth day, not the big events.
The sense of fraternity to those strangers in our temporary lodgings, made me dread heading home to a block of flats where I did not know my neighbour. I made the resolution that when I get home I will knock on all their doors, a resolution that at time of writing still terrifies me.
We sang with the volunteers late into the night (much to the annoyance of those sleeping in the classroom overlooking the playground).
Old women at their windows waved as all the nations of the earth walked past their humble houses.
Like in Eurovision voting, some flag waving had an air of one upmanship, but on the whole, the flags were saying ‘I am here to praise God and discover what we have in common. I even saw Israelis and Palestinians dancing in the street together. There was a healthy tension between unity and diversity; a pride in one’s heritage, and roots in distinct ecosystems and cultures, as well as pride in being part of a global family. It was a huge contrast to the ‘homogenisation’ that a global consumer culture creates and causes so much polarity as we all compete to be ‘represented’ within a false unity.
Our only hostile run in came from what was kindly described as ‘a cultural difference in what justice is’. The cultural stereotype of Germans putting their towels down on the beach was (mis)appropriated by another nation who shan’t be named, who had staked their territory like the frontiersmen, not appreciating that there were many other groups who would need to pack like sardines into the same territory.
Learning: Experience can flavour the message of God in interesting ways. How are our views on the world and neighbours and our own ideas of justice get confused with an entitlement flavoured by politics, consumerism and past hurts?
The Heat that week was extraordinary. Reaching 40oC while the 1.6 million streamed back from their hiding places amongst the city, all day long, mostly be foot, to aggregate a park with no shade, to attend adoration of the blessed Eucharist and mass the following day with the Pope. As Fr Joe reminded us frequently… “drink! Because by the time you are thirsty it will be too late!”
Once a few Australians vacated the bins (the only shade available in the field), we fashioned them into a sun shelter using bamboo canes picked on the walk, a waterproof poncho and bungee cords.
Again this was exhilarating for a day but, the realisation that the best spot in the field was hiding in the bins was a sobering thought. That the number of refugees in Uganda alone was a comparable 1.5 million from bordering countries, displaced from conflict and climate, where 96.6% rely on aid.* The numbers at World Youth Day gathered in a single place was incomprehensible to my mind, yet it was a fraction of those living this reality everyday. At the mercy of aid organisations feeding them out of the back of trucks and food stations, rather than being able to have a share of God’s gifts and provide for themselves.
How will World Youth Day call me to be more fraternal, merciful and aware of the bonds to my global family through care of the Earth?
Fr Joe in his concluding homily said we have a choice what we bring back with us. We can either choose to remember the times of hardship and frustration, or we can remember the friendships, and the graces that we have been given on the pilgrimage. This is a truth we need to practice daily on our lifelong pilgrimage.
I am grateful for having experienced WYD, on one hand the grand of the scale of it, and the other the bonds with my small group of fellow pilgrims that I shared my days with. It highlights the care for my local community back home against the backdrop of the urgent need to care for our global family and common home. The relationships I form with God, neighbours and planet; influence my direction and method of travel from A to B in the web of interactions and relationships of our pilgrimage in a modern world.
In an age where globalisation and a threatened biosphere affect us all, recognition of our global fraternity, and a sense of closeness to all should inspire a merciful way of being, a new call to radical simplicity and a God centred life, free from consumerism and fear that destroys and sews competition. I have met my neighbour and I can no longer pretend that they are not my family. If each person bears the image of God, then how can I not love each and every person born and yet to be born and live a pilgrimage within our common home?
It is time to rise up, to go with haste, prepare the future.
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