Visions of cobblestone streets, shadows of cathedrals and churches, and savory food hanging in window shops danced in my head as I imagined returning to Spain.
I had lived there for a semester during my study abroad experience and now the campus ministry office had just announced a student trip to World Youth Day in Madrid that upcoming summer. I sat, dreaming of the opportunity to return to the land in which I had experienced freedom, growth, and adventure, but dared not ask for financial help from my parents to go. Deep down, I felt selfish. Hadn’t it been enough that I had spent a semester studying abroad, with a couple weeks of backpacking in Europe thrown in? I was silent, and the deadline passed.
A few weeks later at Sunday Mass, another announcement came. There were two slots still available to attend World Youth Day. It felt like a sign. After discussing the opportunity with my parents — who were thrilled that I was interested in a faith event including the pope — I applied, was accepted, and began making plans to return to my own version of the promised land.
I began my pilgrimage to Madrid with selfish intentions, spurred on by my love of travel and the prospect of adventure. This opportunity seemed like a safe intersection between something wholesome and exciting, but I knew nothing about the concept of pilgrimage and what exactly World Youth Day had in store.
Pope John Paul II started World Youth Day in 1985 as “an annual gathering of youth and young adults for prayer, worship, and celebration of the Catholic faith.” International gatherings occur every two to three years and last for several days; the pope always plays a big role in the event.
When I attended World Youth Day, I was just beginning to understand and love my Catholic faith. My time abroad in Spain had left me deeply grateful for our Catholic tradition, and I began to cultivate this gratitude back in the States with daily prayer. A desire for a relationship with God started budding within me. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, he was calling it to bloom more deeply while on pilgrimage.
As a college student, I attended Mass and tried to be a generally good person (whatever that meant), and so I felt that I was in a pretty decent state, morally. But overall, I felt alone in my faith. My experience at World Youth Day changed that because I was surrounded by young people who were all striving for the same thing. I felt united with young people from all over the world, which changed the way I thought about belonging to the Catholic Church.
The group I went with celebrated Mass together and reflected on the readings each night in small groups. My small group began to feel like a family; I felt at home with my brothers and sisters while being thousands of miles away from anything familiar.
World Youth Day also was an immense experience of healing and grace. I will never forget an evening of adoration and confession a week or so before the gathering in Madrid. While the soft light of candles danced in the chapel and acoustic music played, I felt inspired to go to confession.
I remember standing in line with others waiting to be directed to one of the several priests from all over the world. Each one had a card in front of him indicating his primary language and if he spoke any others. I looked wistfully at the cool Jesuit priest from New York as I was directed to an Italian priest whose other languages were Spanish and English. “Great,” I thought. “This guy probably won’t even understand what I’m saying.”
Then we began. The priest listened quietly as I explained my shortcomings and failings. I finished, and he was silent for a few moments, confirming what I thought upon first seeing him: he hadn’t understood a thing.
After what seemed like an eternity, he spoke softly the following words: “For your penance, go, sit in front of the Real Presence, and allow God to love you. Don’t say anything, just let him love you.”
I don’t know what I had wanted to hear, but his short, simple words were more powerful than anything I had heard before. Just allow God to love me? Had I ever in my life actually and truly given God this opportunity? Had I invited Him to marvel at my existence and given Him permission to flood me with His love?
I felt naked with silence and empty hands. Prior to this, I had always felt the need to earn and merit love. That day, I made myself vulnerable, with no words to hide behind. It was just me. And God.
His love came like a flood, and tears quickly dripped down my cheeks. God was showing me that I didn’t need to do or be anything to deserve His love. I was enough. This knowledge seems so simple but is another thing entirely when experienced. God delights in me for exactly who I am. He looks at me with wonder and longs for me to let Him be a part of my life. He looks at each of us this way.
I needed to hear those words, and I need to hear them again each day. God is always speaking that Word if we can receive it. We don’t need to attend a World Youth Day gathering in an exotic place in order to encounter Him, though pilgrimages can be a special journey of grace. We can encounter God in any tabernacle, any sacrament, any person, any action. Are we setting time apart for Him and giving Him permission to ravish us with His love?
As the young Church prepares for World Youth Day in Panama at the end of January, consider attending a local celebration. Washington, D.C., will be celebrating Panama in the Capital, complete with Mass, talks, live music, food trucks, and more. I learned that large gatherings of this sort can be powerful experiences of the universal Church that strengthen faith, foster friendships, and facilitate a personal encounter with God.
God seeks your heart. Will you allow Him to love you?