At 7:00 p.m. on Monday, August 22, 2011, a weary but elated group of youth and young adult pilgrims from the Diocese of Raleigh landed at RDU International Airport. Friends and family, some holding balloons, were waiting with hugs for the pilgrims, who had left on August 12 on a 10-day journey that took them to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France and then on to World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain.
The Diocesan group included the Most Reverend Michael F. Burbidge and 64 young adults and chaperones. The returning pilgrims spoke of the incredible number of people at WYD -- an estimated 1.4 million visitors -- and the physical and spiritual high points of their journey. They also recounted a moment of disappointment.
At the Vigil Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday night, a surge of people broke through one of the gates to the field in front of the stage where the Mass would be held. As a result, and because of a lack of food and water for so many visitors, security police closed the area for the safety of the youth, and the Diocesan group was locked out. After walking seven hours to attend the Vigil Mass, they returned to their hotel and watched the Mass on television. Fortunately, many were able to attend the Sunday morning Mass.
The disappointment of Saturday night was actually a moment of spiritual insight, according to Nicholas Howell of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Apex. “It reminded us that this trip was more about Jesus than just about seeing the Pope,” he said.
Patrick Diener, Youth Director for the Diocese and leader of the trip, referred to that kind of insight when he said, “God moved us out of the way so that He could bring us to where we needed to be.”
Nathaniel Duncombe of Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish also attended World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008. He described the two pilgrimages as similar, spiritually. “Once again,” he said, “I feel like I learned more about myself spiritually. The crowds in Madrid were bigger and more European than in Sydney, but the thrill of meeting other Catholics from across the world was the same, and I got to try out my Spanish.”
Emma Korynta of St. Thomas More Parish in Chapel Hill called the experience “incredible. In that gathering, strangers were family.” Jordan Watkins, also of St. Thomas More, described the energy she felt “whenever we got together as a group.”
Kyle Stickney of St. Joseph Parish in Raleigh also talked about the excitement of being a part of such a huge gathering. Kyle was one of those who made it to the Sunday morning Mass. “All the people waving, the togetherness, it was just amazing,” he said.
Fr. Anthony DeCandia, Campus Minister at North Carolina State University, was one of three priests in addition to the Bishop who went on the pilgrimage. In the airport he recalled the spiritual feeling of Lourdes, the perilous-seeming bus ride on steep roads through the Pyrenees from France to Spain, and special feeling of camaraderie in the group. “The youth got to spend time with Bishop Burbidge and see a personal side of him,” he said, “and it was a great kind of bonding experience. They had a chance to ask questions about absolutely everything, and they had tons of questions.”
A personal highlight for Fr. Decandia was hearing confessions in Madrid. “They had set up some 200 confessionals in what they called the ‘Festival of Forgiveness’,” he recalled. “Fr. Tim Meares and I heard confessions there, and the Pope actually heard confessions as well.”
Fr. DeCandia said the big Masses on Saturday and Sunday were memorable: “Even though by Sunday morning we were sleep deprived, it was awesome to be there, to see the Church celebrating itself.” But he also cherished the “special times when we were together as pilgrims, for example when Bishop Burbidge celebrated Mass for us at St. Michael’s Church in Madrid, and followed Mass with some catechesis, and reflections by Fr. Meares and Fr. Philip Tighe. That was one of many blessed moments on the pilgrimage.”
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Above: Diocese of Raleigh pilgrims returning at Raleigh-Durham International Airport from World Youth Day 2011.