I am writing this log on the day that Pope Francis arrives in Panama for the World Youth Day celebration which is taking place under the theme: I am the servant of the Lord; May it be done to me according to Your Word (Lk 1:38). As there was no group going out this year from Scotland, Brother Antony tried to bring a touch of Panama to St. Mungo’s last Wednesday night by exploring that theme with the Passionist Young Team, and by sharing some of his own experiences of World Youth Day’s over the years. St. Mungo’s, of course, has had a good history of sending groups to World Youth Days, and a number of people now involved in various ministries have experienced those wonderful events when they were a bit younger. It’s an amazing experience for a young person from Scotland to meet so many young people from all over the world, so alive, and so enthusiastic about their faith, and to realize that they are not weird just because they believe in, and practice their Catholic Faith.
My own experience is quite limited. I regularly sent a group of young people from Mount Argus in Dublin, but I was never able to free myself up to accompany them. I had great intentions of going to Australia in 2008 until my niece chose to get married during the same period, and I would have been disowned by the family if I hadn’t been home to celebrate the wedding. She had chosen to get married at St. Simon’s in Partick, a church we all loved, and the church, of course, where her dad had grown up and served on the altar. When I turned up on the day to do the wedding, I discovered that the church was double-booked and that a Polish Mass was also scheduled to take place. I spoke to the Polish priest and he assured me it would be a short Mass, but it would seem he had a different understanding of what “short” meant than I had. Still, there was no panic, and while the groom was kept calm by his groomsmen, and the bride took her time getting ready, adding gladly to her privilege of being late, we eventually got started, and we were still at the reception in good time for the meal.
I did manage to get to WYD in Madrid in 2011. Father Paul Francis and I had agreed that our two groups from Glasgow and Dublin would meet up and attend the event together. The two of us went out a few months beforehand to make some arrangements and we stayed with the Passionists at the Shrine of St. Gemma in Madrid. St. Gemma’s Shrine was walking distance from the Bernabeu Stadium, home to Real Madrid, and most of the community were fanatical Real Madrid fans. They took me one night to visit the stadium, to have a bite to eat in the restaurant, and to have a personal tour, as they were all well known to the staff. I was able to impress them with the knowledge that in 1960, 127,000 people attended the European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park, in Glasgow, which at that time was the biggest football stadium in the world.
At the World Youth Day itself, a few months later, we endured 40 degrees of heat for days, with little shade to be found. Even on the long trek to the venue for the overnight vigil and the final Mass with Pope Benedict the following morning, which would be attended by an estimated one and a half million people, kindly residents were hosing us down with water as we walked along, to cool us in the scorching heat. But then, just as a period of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was about to begin, a ferocious storm brewed up, scattering tents and sleeping bags everywhere, and even endangering the Blessed Sacrament Tent, leading to that prayer time with the pope being abandoned. Eventually, the storm calmed, and we bedded down for the night. In the morning we were able to celebrate the Eucharist with Pope Benedict as planned, and then wend our weary way home. It was a wonderful experience for the two weeks we were together with our young people from Glasgow and Dublin, and from all over the world, firstly in Valencia for some preliminary events, and then in Madrid. But I decided there and then that, having turned 60 a couple of months before, this would be the last time I would ever sleep in a field, and that is one of the few resolutions I have ever kept.