Thoughts from a young theologian

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Vacationing in Valencia

It’s official… Pilgrimage mode is over… sort of… Now I’m into tourist mode… I’m spending the rest of my week and a bit touring a little bit more of Spain, namely Valencia and Barcelona (the favorite city of my sister) before spending our last few days in Paris and flying back to Vancouver… I’ve already finished my stay both in Valencia and Barcelona and as I’m writing this post, I’m on my way (literally on my plane) to Paris… Let me summarize the highlights of Valencia for you here…

To end off my day in Madrid, my sister and I went to a soccer game in the nearby stadium that featured a game between Spain and the rest of the world… This game was the city’s way of saying thank you and goodbye to all the pilgrims who had come to visit them over the spectacular week of WYD… I think that most people were already exhausted from the final mass and from the whole week in general so the stadium was only half full… But it was still quite an experience.. For someone who comes from the part of the world where hockey rules EVERYTHING, it was a huge treat for me to see European soccer… And you could tell that these players weren’t amateurs either, just by the crisp way that they passed the ball around… I didn’t know any of them though and it wasn’t really announced who we were actually watching… At the end of the game, which the rest of the world won 2-1, they released hundreds of brightly colored balloons into the night sky, officially ending WYD 2011.

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The next day, my sister who was with a separate group (from Vancouver) and I travelled to Valencia, after meeting my brother at the Madrid train station… He had decided not to join us for the World Youth Day events and instead went backpacking throughout Europe with a few friends… We’ll be getting him to Rio for sure in a couple of years…

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Valencia, home of the famed architect, Santiago Calatrava and the birthplace of paella!!! From the get go, we didn’t stop eating… As soon as we got in late at night, we found out that our hotel had a relatively cheap buffet dinner and so we signed up really quickly and had a fantastic meal before bed… The next day, we toured the city of Valencia a little bit… We visited the central market, where we had a late brunch of, you guessed it… paella!!!

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For me though, the highlight of our first day in Valencia was easily the cathedral… The city was apparently home to several saints, including one of my personal favorites, the miracle worker, St. Vincent Ferrer… St. Vincent was soooooo renowned for his many miracles that he was attracting a bit too much attention to himself and his order that his superior asked him to stop working miracles… The story goes that after this, St. Vincent was walking on his way, I think to mass, one day and across the street were some workers working on the facade of a building on top of some scaffolding… One of them lost his footing and started falling to the ground and seeing the priest walking below, he cried out to him for help… The problem is that St. Vincent cannot work miracles and saints are very obedient… So he told the guy to wait up and the construction worker froze in place as he was falling down… St. Vincent then went to see his superior who, stupefied, asked him if he was there now and gave him permission to save him… Sigh… I love saints… This is the pulpit he preached from once…

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Saints aren’t the only thing to be found in this magnificent cathedral… Housed in a little chapel off the entrance of the cathedral is one of the most important relics in Christendom… Legend has it that this particular relic was brought to Spain hundreds of years ago to protect it from the Christian persecutions and was hidden in various monasteries when the Moors invaded Spain before finally remerging and being presented to the Valencia cathedral later on… This relic is none other that the holy grail… yes… the same one Indiana Jones was trying to find. According to legend, this particular grail is the same one used by Christ during the last supper!!!

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The grail has special significance for myself who’s discerning the priesthood because of literally what it means to be a priest… to act in persona Christi… By repeating the same words he said 2000 years ago, “This is my body… This is my blood…” we make present Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and the bread and wine before us are transubstantiated (wow… big word…) into His Body and His Blood!!! The Eucharist we receive today is the same Eucharist He gave His disciples during the Last Supper, the same Eucharist received by the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, and the same Eucharist received by the first disciples during the first masses in the crypts of Rome. It’s the same Christ… These are just a few thoughts that ran through my head as I was praying before the relic…

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The other slightly less major highlight from Valencia happened the next day when we visited one of its most famous sites, the set of buildings designed by Santiago Calatrava that appears most on wish you were here postcards and travel guides… the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias… We spent most of day 2 in Valencia touring this modern complex… We started with the Museo de Las Ciencias, a huge, Science-World like building with enough gadgets and exhibits to entertain children of all ages… My personal favorite, being a biologist, was the chromosome forest that showcased all 23 pairs of human chromosomes, including what genes are found in each and what they do in the most creative way I’ve ever seen… Look at what they did to demonstrate the length of the human intestine, for example!!!

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After the museum of science, my sister and I watched an IMAX movie about the Nile river on the building that looks like an eye, the Hemisfèric before ending our day and essentially our Valencian visit with the aquarium, Oceanogràfic. There, like in any other aquarium we visited, we watched the dolphin show, visited the sharks, rays and other tropical fish by walking through the longest underwater tunnel I’ve ever been in… We also checked out the penguins and walruses before finally calling it a day… It’s nice to just be a tourist!!! c”,) God bless until next time!!!

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Double Mass Effect!! The final two days of WYD Madrid

So as I’m writing this post, I’m currently on a high speed train traveling next to the ocean on the way back to Barcelona… Barcelona was the first stop I made with my group on arriving in Spain but my brother and sister have not yet been to the city so it’s definitely on the agenda… I’ll be giving a quick update on what happened in Valencia next post but for now, I’d like to finish my story on World Youth Day.

After an early Friday night, I got up extremely early on the Saturday morning… By early, I mean 5:00 am… It’s a time I’m kinda already used to from seminary life but I haven’t gotten up this early since the seminary… I got up early because I wanted to be in the metro station by the time the first metro came around at 6 am… Why? To try and get to a very special mass celebrated by Pope Benedict exclusively for seminarians at the Madrid cathedral… I ran into a couple of American and Polish seminarians while in the metro and by the time I got off at Opera, the station closest to the cathedral, I saw many many others… Seminarians are super easy to spot especially since most of them were wearing their cassocks… It was quite a sight to be roaming the darkened, empty streets of Madrid following the dark robed seminarians…

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By the time I got to the gates of the cathedral, a huge surprise awaited me… There were already over a thousand seminarians in line ahead of me… Apparently, everyone thought the exact same thing… In fact, I even ran into some seminarians who had spent the night lining up outside the gate… How they did that is unimaginable because we were told not to bring any bags so they must have slept in or on their cassocks!!! By the time I got into the compound with the cathedral, it was already 8 am, the sun was up and the cathedral was already full… I had to stay on the outside since there was no more room…. I put a couple of stuff down on my seat then made my way to the barrier right in front of the cathedral door to take some pictures… After taking pictures, I decided to stay there… Mass would not be for another 2 & 1/2 hours but right next to the barrier, I had the best spot in the house!!! I was right at the corner!!! To my left was the red carpet leading up the cathedral steps while to my right was the driveway from the gate of the cathedral leading up to the entrance… I waited for a very long time standing up under the hot sun in that area. To pass the time, I met the seminarian next to me who came from a religious order in Mexico and together, we prayed the morning prayers (in Spanish). At the end of the day though, in spite of the heat, the exhaustion from standing up the whole time, and the crowds around me, it was well worth the wait… Pope Benedict riding his pope mobile pulled up the driveway directly in front of me and I was only a few feet away from him… I was close enough to even touch him, though I didn’t because he wasn’t touching anyone…

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He looked a little older, a little weaker and a little more tired than when I saw him last… The papal office must be wearing him down a little bit… He really does need our prayers to keep going…

I sent the rest of the mass in my seat and towards the end of the mass, I made my way back to the barrier (nowhere near as close as I was on the pope’s arrival) and prepared to take a very nice picture of myself “touching” him.. This was the best I could do…

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But nevertheless, I was thrilled to have been able to see him… Please pray for him, dear readers… I can’t stress it enough but he really needs our prayers. I’ve attached the transcript for the homily he gave us on a link below… If you’ve got some time, it’s definitely worth the read…

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20110820_seminaristi-madrid_en.html

After the mass, I met up with Luke, the other seminarian who slept in a little bit and we both made our way back to the school to try and leave with everyone else for the vigil and final mass… We met all of them just as they were getting ready to leave so we all made our way to Cuatro Vientos, the site of the final mass, together.

It must have been the hottest day of the week for the entire city… Cuatro Vientos was the place EVERYBODY was making their way to so the roads to it were absolutely packed with people all carrying their respective country’s flag and trying to stay together… The heat, as I’ve said, reached it’s climax at this point and it took an immense, courageous effort from all the pilgrims to make it to the site… Even the water in our water bottles became hot because of the scorching sun… The residents of the houses and apartments lining the roads started pouring down water on the pilgrims down below… At some point, even the firefighters arrived with their hoses to hose us all down… Yes… It was that hot!!!

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Cuatro Vientos is an old airport that stretches out in the south of Madrid… It is so extensive that it took us close to an hour to walk from the entrance where we came in all the way to the other side of the airport where we were assigned to stay… All the way were floods of thousands of thousands of people… People and flags as far as the eye can see… It was a magnificent sight and one which I would have enjoyed more if it wasn’t for the heat… One. Holy. Catholic. Apostolic. This is my church… and she is beautiful and she is young…

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Along the way, a few people in our group were overcome by the heat and needed to stop for a breath… It wasn’t uncommon to see a small crowd gathering around one person who collapsed on the ground out of sheer exhaustion and until this point, my group of 50 had been spared of that… Now, in the long walk to Cuatro Vientos, we had two people who couldn’t make it all the way… And so we did what any and all other groups did too, we carried them… Carried them in the sense of carrying all their stuff, giving them lots of space, water, love, and care… No one would ever get left behind… We’re all tired… We all lack sleep… We all smell bad… We’re all a little sick. And despite all of that, we’re all moved by a peace and joy that, although not always outwardly expressed is, at least in my opinion, inwardly felt… That is part of the magic that is World Youth Day… It’s not a vacation… It’s a pilgrimage…

By the time we got to our site, we only had a few hours of light left so we picked up our bag lunches and ate our dinner in anticipation of the vigil which was to begin soon… People would be going around a little bit trading various trinkets and things that they had brought along from their home countries… In many ways, WYD is more international than even the Olympics… This I can say confidently, having experienced Vancouver 2010 first hand… Nowhere else can one meet, not the dozen or so superstar athletes from the different countries, but locals from all corners of the globe in one same place… If you want to travel the world but don’t have enough money to do so, why not do the next best thing… Go to a World Youth Day… the one place where thousands from all over the world will be…

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The heat made this World Youth Day especially difficult but the surprises did not stop there… Right before the vigil started, the pilgrims were buffeted by a strong hurricane carrying with it winds and rain… Our group was worried earlier on as we saw the dark clouds and lightning strikes looming ominously close in the distance… So we packed all our stuff… the stuff we just recently unpacked… into large garbage bags to protect our gear from the elements… In the middle of the vigil, the hurricane hit us pretty hard and the pope had to stop for a little bit… Pilgrims flooded into the only shelters available, namely the little chapels set up to house the Blessed Sacrament for prayer and for communion for the mass the next day… Some of these chapels were even destroyed by the winds, the main reason why we didn’t have communion the next day…

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When the winds died down, the pope came back on stage… For an 84 year old man, he is pretty resilient… He exhorted us saying that our faith is stronger than even the winds… I was reminded a lot of the theme of our event throughout the whole thing… Rooted and built up in Christ, firm in the faith… One of the Gospel passages during mass that week came from the parable of the man who built his house on rock versus he who built his house on sand. The winds came and buffeted the house on sand and it tumbled down, while that which was built on rock stayed firm and solid all throughout… Seeing the determination and joy of my fellow pilgrims was enough to sustain me through all the way in spite of what else may come… That night was especially memorable as we all knelt in adoration with our Holy Father before Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament… Then, something very special happened that told me in my heart that all of this was planned… providence…. Immediately after benediction, the skies opened up once more and a very light rain fell on everyone present, as if God Himself was blessing us all from above…

One last surprise awaited us, just for good measure… Our “home” for the evening was already occupied and its current tenants were not very thrilled to see us as they made it evidently clear through the night…

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Yes… We had ants too… There were a couple of holes in the ground that was the entrance to their underground necropolis and any unlucky pilgrim who installed himself directly on top of one of these entrances was in for a bit of a surprise… After a little bit of shuffling around, we finally turned in for the night, exhausted but content and peaceful…

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At the end of every night, there is always a morning… a new day… almost like the resurrection that followed the cross… We awoke to a gorgeous, slightly cooler summer day refreshed and ready for any new challenges that awaited us… After packing our stuff, we got ready for the final mass which was, after the difficult night we had come from, exquisitely beautiful… Though we could not receive communion, we united in spiritual communion with the Holy Father and the magisterium of bishops, archbishops and cardinals around him… In his homily, speaking of the importance of building up a personal relationship with Christ, and in union with the Church, he told us “Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation.”

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I’d like to end this little story of World Youth Day 2011 with something very special that Fr. Alexandre told us in his homily during the last mass when we were all more or less together as a group for the last time… He said, also sticking closely to the theme of WYD of the need to be more strongly rooted and firm in our faith that when God led His people out of Egypt, He also used that experience to strengthen them all… They complained against leaving Egypt where they all had enough to eat, enough to drink, a nice warm place to stay and showers galore (he may have modified that a little bit… Heheheheeheh) God made them grow stronger as a people neither in Egypt, where they came from, nor in the Promised Land where they were going but in the harsh and barren desert that lay between… A pilgrimage is not a journey of luxury and comfort but a road marked with of challenges and difficulties. What you get out of it though is not some fluffy memories, a mind full of information and some petty souvenirs but an experience of none other than God Himself… “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you (Genesis 12: 1) See you in Rio!!!


Esta es la juventud del papa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

One of the great cheers of this year’s World Youth Day… This is the youth of the pope!!! Thursday and Friday were days that changed the mood of the crowds dramatically… It was still hot… still sticky… We still had super cold showers… none of that had changed. But still, something was different… You could feel it. The pope was here!!!

The morning of the Thursday began as usual… We made our way to the conference rooms for our usual morning catechisms and mass. The archbishop was once again from France but for his catechism, he basically summarized what we had been spending most of the days leading up to World Youth Day following, namely the 14 marches. These are 14 days made up of reflections, teachings, quotations from the catechism or saints and the message of the pope divided up to try and prepare pilgrims spiritually for the event. It was made up by the Archdiocese of Paris… Because we already followed these marches closely, we were slightly less interested in the catechisms of that day and a few people took the opportunity to get some much needed rest (if you know what I mean). I gotta show the human side of World Youth Day too you know… Hehehehehe None of us are saints yet, though we’re all hoping to make our way to sanctity…

After the mass, we divided ourselves up into smaller groups depending on who wanted to go where… I stayed in a slightly larger group of 10 with Fr. Frederic, the cure of parish where most of the guys in my group belong to. We began by eating a very hearty lunch of tapas, bocadillos (sandwiches) and salad. While I’m on the topic of food, I would like to say something about that aspect of World Youth Day. While Sydney 2008 was better than Madrid in many ways because of all the logistical work that was put into Sydney (e.g. portapodies with plumbing, private shower portapodies with hot water, more organized mass gatherings, etc…) the biggest one up that Madrid had on Sydney was their food. Normally, the way World Youth Day food works is that we’re all given tickets for the meals, we need to group ourselves into groups of 6 and one member of our group goes out into a very long lineup waiting to pick up the bag lunches for the group of 6. Sydney did a very good job of that but many people had to endure slightly long waits because of the fact that often, microwaves were used to reheat the food… Yes, Sydney was that organized. In Spain, they did things slightly differently… They gave us something we never had before… choice. They basically coordinated with hundreds of restaurants, from the big time fast food chains like McDonalds or Burger King to the typical family-run Spanish restaurants to the tapa bars. All these restaurants offered us what’s known as a pilgrim menu, namely a set meal that once you came in and handed in your tickets, you would be well taken care of. Something that really touched me from the residents of Madrid was the fact that lots of these smaller restaurants didn’t really stick that closely to their pilgrim menu. Yes, they did give us all that was on their menu but they usually went a little further… They would give us a little more wine or a little more desert or whatever… You could really feel the Spanish hospitality. One of the best aspects of World Youth Day is that it really immerses you into the culture of the host country, and one of the ways it does that is through the food… Madrid definitely gets an A+++++++++ for its food.

One of the interesting things that happened during lunch was the fact that we met, once again, the Egyptian Catholics who were also having lunch in the same restaurant. They were extremely friendly and they told us a little about their history as, not Roman Rite Catholics but (I think) Coptic rite Catholics. Someday, I’ll have to blog about the different rites within the Church, but not today… After dinner, we tried to make our way to a church near Plaza del Cibeles, where we were going to a bit of adoration. One problem was that I was leading the group there and I got us a bit lost. When we found the right way, the girls saw a nearby slushie store and went in to buy some drinks… Hehehehe By the end of it, it was already close to the time when the pope would arrive so Fr. Fred jokingly thought we were all conspiring against him. We secured our spot at the Plaza del Colon, right in front of the giant screen while he went off to pray saying that it was best if we all stuck together and didn’t go with him because it would be easier for him, a priest, to make his way through the crowds back to us. We spent most of the afternoon while waiting for the pope to arrive speaking to a few German priests nearby and meeting some of the Argentinians next to us…

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When the pope arrived, everyone broke out into loud cheers… We were all soooooo happy to see him. He seemed to be a little weaker than the last time we saw him in Sydney and that manifested itself in him not making it all the way to the Plaza del Colon where we were waiting for him. Instead, he drove mostly around Cibeles before making his way on stage to greet us. We were lucky to be in front of the big screen, so we saw all that was going on but those in front of the barriers who were hoping to see him weren’t quite as fortunate. Fr. Fred, who was hoping to touch the pope (beating his old record of being a few meters away from the pope) was running back and forth to the barrier area because I was convinced that he might be coming there… Oops… hehehehe He ended up “touching” the pope through the big screen…

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After the papal welcome, we made our way to a little bar to drink some sangrilla and beer and say goodbye to one of our two priests, Fr. Fred, who was flying back to Quebec the next day to preside over a wedding.

Friday’s catechism was much more Canadian themed… It was first of all, our group from Quebec that led the worship in the morning, so most of the group was onstage. The bishop who spoke to us was Canadian and he gave an extremely moving reflection on the need to be a witness to the world. He also celebrated mass for us. What made mass a bit extra special for me was the fact that I served in it… I was the book bearer for the mass so, for the first time since heading out here, I actually performed some seminarian duties. It was so much fun and was definitely something I missed a bit.

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After mass, we tried to stick together in our little organized fraternities… Being the leader of my fraternity, I was hoping to bring my group to a little restaurant somewhere near downtown to get them some authentic paella and to give us a place and time to share some of our experiences with each other. My mistake (yes, I made a lot of them over the last few days) was that everyone else in the city had the same idea and the lineups were far too long… We ended up using our tickets to get some small sandwiches and drinks and we were separated into different tables because of the enormous crowds… I was disappointed in not being able to foresee that at about that time, everyone was looking for something to eat so it was best to stay away from the center of the city. In any case, after lunch, we once again separated into groups depending on where we wanted to go. My small group and I spent the afternoon visiting some of the souvenir and religious stores along Plaza del Sol as we made our way to the cathedral to check that place out.

After that, we went to a little restaurant near Cibeles, where the stations were to take place that evening, for supper. This restaurant was way better than that of lunch because they offered, for our tickets, not just one or two, but three sandwiches, pop and ice cream!! The most fantastic part was that in front of the restaurant was a barrier with a few people lining it. While we were having dinner, we saw a number of people running around towards it and heard a few cheers so a few of our group ran outside towards the barriers and there he was!! Pope Benedict XVI driving by!! I was literally so tired that I waved at him from my chair inside the restaurant before nodding off a little bit more… Hehehehehe Then, providentially, many more people from our larger group had the idea of going to the same restaurant we were in (out of the hundreds that were in the city) so we joined up with them and made our way to the stations of the cross. The two pictures I have of the stations here, I took from the official WYD site…

The stations were a little different this year. In past World Youth Days, they were re-enacted throughout the streets of the host city by actors playing the role of Jesus, Mary, the guards, etc… This time, there were pilgrims from different parts of the globe carrying the World Youth Day cross to different statue scenes of different stations. It was, in some ways, more prayerful and moving to see the emotions on the face of Christ and the people around him captured by the Spanish sculptors and painters. Pope Benedict apparently really loved this new WYD way (but in many ways, more traditional way) of doing the stations of the cross…

Because we were all sooooooo tired, we took up the last empty spot behind some trees where, while we couldn’t see the screen, we could at least follow along with the music and the prayers. It was, though more difficult, also very special for us. We ended that day exhausted and turned in early that night to get ready for the last two big events of WYD, the vigil and the final mass. Last WYD post coming up!!! God bless!!!