It’s a lovely Friday morning in Washington. This weekend is shaping up to be pretty normal – Mass and confessions tomorrow morning, a wedding tomorrow afternoon, helping with confessions at a Confirmation retreat at another parish that night, and my usual 2 Masses on Sunday. Nothing that I haven’t done before. But LAST weekend…well, that was something else.
Once again, our day started far too early. (For the record, it could have started at 10, and I would have considered it far too early.) The plan for the day was to go to Mass that morning and then head directly to the Campus Misericordiae for the Vigil. But in order to do that, we would not be able to return to the hotel, so we had to take everything with us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First things first: we had breakfast and then hopped on the bus. We went back to the arena that we were at a few nights previously. Mass this morning was specifically for the pilgrims from the US, and was concelebrated by most of the US bishops who were in attendance. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville was the main celebrant; Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, CT, was the homilist. Despite the fact that this Mass was marketed to Americans, there were plenty of non-Americans in the house, too. Not that it matters much; we’re all one Church.
After Mass, we got back on the bus, and started to drive towards the field. The central event of WYD is the Vigil that the young people keep from Saturday night until Sunday morning, and then the Pope celebrates Sunday Mass with us and announces the location of the next WYD. However, the location of the Vigil and Mass is never right in town – for 2 reasons. The first is an issue of practicality: where are you going to put just over 2 million people? The second is that this is a pilgrimage – which implies that you need to GO to the place. So it’s generally a bit of a hike – literally – outside of the city. You also have to bring with you what you need for keeping an overnight vigil – sleeping gear, etc. So you’ll be carrying a bit of a load.
The buses were not able to get close to the area at all before they were shut down by security. So we jumped off and started walking. 7 miles, give or take. In the sun. In 85 degree weather. And I wear all black.
Luckily I had packed a lot of water. Heatstroke and dehydration are no joke. As we arrived, we were issued a bag of food that had to last us for dinner that night and breakfast the morning. It was substantial, though, and for the most part it was pretty tasty. Once we arrived at our designated zone and claimed a space for our group, I immediately decided it was nap time. SO I spread my official, WYD-issued, canary yellow poncho on the ground (looks like those years in the Boy Scouts paid off), used my backpack as a pillow, and pulled my hat over my face and went to sleep.
I dozed for a while, then got up, ate something, drank some water, and prayed for a bit, then just waited for the Holy Father to arrive. He did, to much fanfare, and preached yet another amazing homily, which you can (and should) read here. Towards the end of the Vigil, candles were passed out to the entire crowd as we prayed for peace. I wish I had taken a photo of what that looked like. I’ll have to see if one of the kids did. But it was awesome – a field of light in the darkness; 2 million people from over 180 countries, speaking hundreds of different languages, all praying for peace…
You might think it would be tough to sleep after that…I assure you, it was not.
The next morning, I woke up around 5 or so. Dawn was just breaking. I’m not often up at sunrise, so I enjoyed it for a few minutes, then realized that dawn is just too early for me. So I hit the metaphorical snooze button and went back to sleep. I was back up by about 6, though, because when you’re in the middle of an open field, there’s nowhere to hide from the sun – and the sun, as is it’s custom, was both bright and hot. So I got up, stretched a bit, and watched everyone else slowly come to.
We looked like people who had slept the night in a field following a long, hot, and arduous hike – which is to say, we looked awful. And we smelled worse. But everyone was in a good mood because we were all in it together. As I was standing there, a religious sister came over and was wondering if I wouldn’t mind hearing her confession and the confessions of a couple other sisters, as well. By the time I finished with them, I had a line of regular folks that wanted to go to confession as well. So I kept going. And going. By the time I finished, Mass had started. I hadn’t planned on concelebrating anyway, since I wasn’t about to walk another mile to get to the sanctuary, so I just got back to the group and joined them.
It’s kind of weird to be at Mass as a priest and not be concelebrating. On the other hand, it’s how I went to Mass for the first 34 years of my life, so it’s not completely foreign to me, either. Yet again, the Pope crushed the homily. Read that one, too.
We did a very Catholic thing at this Mass – as soon as we received Communion, we started walking for the exit. I was never allowed to do that growing up – most of the time because I was serving, but also because we had a strict family rule about that. But I watch people do it every Sunday, so I thought I might try it. Turns out it’s a bad idea, so knock it off. Seriously, though, given how long we were going to have to walk, we wanted to get a jump on the crowd. We weren’t even out of the field before Mass ended, anyway.
As we were making our long walk back into the city, we heard a bit of a commotion behind us. We turned to look, and there was a massive motorcade headed our way. “I bet it’s the Pope,” one of the kids said. “I would have thought they would have flown him out by chopper,” I answered. What do I know? It was the Pope. He waved from the car as he zipped by; the crowd went nuts. And then kept walking.
We reconvened with our tour director, but we had bad news – the bus couldn’t meet us where we were dropped off. So the walk would be longer. So we kept walking – rather aimlessly, it seemed – until we finally got to a spot where we could be picked up. Of course, we were only picked up after we got soaked in a random summer storm, but that might have actually been a good thing, as no one had showered in 36 hours.
Back to the hotel for one of the most welcome showers of my life and a hour long nap, and then a delicious celebration dinner at the hotel. Back upstairs to pack and finally sleep…because Monday would be the beginning of the journey home.