August 19, 2011

By Gretchen R. Crowe
Catholic News Service

YOUNG ETHIOPIAN PILGRIMS PARTICIPATE IN TUG OF WAR IN SPAIN A group of World Youth Day pilgrims from Ethiopia participate in a game of tug of war in Oviedo, Spain, Aug.14. At least 1 million pilgrims are expected to attend the Aug. 16-21 gathering of young people. (CNS)

MADRID (CNS) — Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the globe descended on the Spanish capital Aug. 15 with an array of colorful T-shirts, bloodshot eyes and a unified spirit of excitement about World Youth Day.

On the eve of the festivities’ official opening, pilgrims with their specially designed World Youth Day backpacks crowded the streets, Metro cars and cafes. Many were exhausted, having arrived only hours before.

Sona Mpofu of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, landed at Madrid’s Barajas airport at 8 a.m. after a 10-hour bus ride, a night at a Catholic center in Johannesburg, and a subsequent 10-hour flight. Despite the lack of sleep on the plane and the intense, dry heat, she and 21 other pilgrims from southern African were thrilled about being at World Youth Day.

“When you come here, you feel at home,” said Mpofu, 27. “You don’t need to explain yourself. You are who you are. We understand each other.”

“It’s been an overwhelming experience when you see that everyone shares the same faith, despite color, race and upbringing and culture,” said Fungai Mawada, 20. “We all have that one thing in common. To get here, it’s like coming home to a bigger family.”

For most of the group, it was not only their first World Youth Day, but their first time coming to Europe and even their first time getting on an airplane or leaving Zimbabwe. This pilgrimage was especially poignant for the Zimbabweans because their coordinator, Spanish Marianhill Father Ricardo Davila, died in June from injuries sustained in a car accident. The family of the late priest stepped up, helping coordinate and host the pilgrims for their journey.

A group of 13 affiliated with Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., also arrived in Madrid Aug. 15, following a short layover in Belgium. As a baby cried during the plane’s descent into Brussels, the Christendom teens soothed the child through song, beginning with “You Are My Sunshine” and slipping into religious melodies like “Tantum Ergo” and a Kyrie. A smattering of applause followed the impromptu concert, resulting in a quiet baby and, for the most part, a peaceful group of passengers.

Veronica Halbur, a rising sophomore at Christendom, said that members of her group, many of whom are participating in their first World Youth Day, would be singing during Mass Aug. 17 and 18 at the Love and Life Center English-language hub. The serenade on the plane was simply an arrival-day warm-up.

Pilgrims, of course, are not the only ones getting settled in Madrid. Dozens of U.S. bishops checked in at the Hotel Melia Galgos throughout the day, assisted by Guillermo Lopez in the bright green shirt indicative of World Youth Day volunteers.

Most bishops were tired and in need of something to eat, Lopez said, and he was there to help.

“It’s very nice to meet so many bishops,” said Lopez, who helped greet teens the previous week. “It’s quite a long trip from America.”