World Youth Day, the Catholic festival that brings together young pilgrims from across the globe, was held this past summer August 16-21 in Madrid, Spain. Millions of Catholics flocked to Madrid to share the joys of their faith, celebrate Mass with the Pope (Papa, en Español), and meet Catholics from all different parts of the world.
Inevitably, this also leads to the mass influx of Catholics backpacking around Spain, parading in the streets waving their countries’ flags, invading museums and restaurants with “Pilgrim Specials,” singing hymns in harmony in subways and buses, and clashing with protesters who argue that the estimated 50 million euros spent on the event were ludicrous in light of Spain’s current economic crisis.
If you are wondering why I, the only Jew in Spain, would know so much about this worldwide Catholic festival, it is because I was there.
The summer Spanish courses were split up into two three week sessions, with a five-day-long break in the middle. Naturally, once we heard that we would have a break, we ran to our ordenadors (because computadora is only a Spanish word in Latin America) to check which Ryanair flights would be the most reasonable during that week: our tickets were shortly booked for Madrid.
The first suspicion that our trip would be out of the ordinary was planted when Megan, the only Catholic of the group, mentioned that she wanted to find a “Pope cowboy hat” when in Madrid. Yes, we would soon realize that cowboy hats, along with millions of other 2011 World Youth Day memorabilia, would be sold throughout the city before, during, and after the Pope’s visit. “Oh,” we nonchalantly replied. “I guess we’ll look out for them …”
Only days before our spontaneous and seemingly innocent vacation, other friends mentioned that the Pope would be in Madrid that week, and while there were clear signs all over the news, we simply nodded our heads and brushed it off. Well, that’s nice, but I’m not Catholic. This doesn’t affect me. Right?
Wrong. From the moment we arrived at the airport in Madrid, we were surrounded by “Pope people”—pilgrims sporting World Youth Day (WYD) gear from head to toe (or should I say, from cowboy hat to WYD sock). There were Australian middle-schoolers who flew to Spain with their Catholic boarding school, there were Brazilian families chanting and waving flags, there American college students from Michigan wearing traveler’s backpacks equipped with mats for sleeping on, and the list goes on and on.
Our hostel was a disaster, as there were groups of pilgrims checking in with no less than 20 people at a time. We were only five—we had to wait. But at least we could assume we wouldn’t get robbed with Catholic pilgrims as roommates.
Eventually, we tried to see the Pope at his opening mass. Still not realizing the magnitude of the situation, we walked with swarms of people towards what seemed like the entrance to the event. We walked, and walked, and … nada. All we saw were more people, more flags, more Pope cowboy hats, and nothing else. “Don’t go! There’s NO FOOD!” a fellow American bellowed from the crowd—we knew we had to turn back. Masses of pilgrims began retreating, and we were informed that overcrowding and security issues had caused the event to close its doors.
We couldn’t see the Pope, but we found a McDonald’s, packed with hungry and weary travelers from across the globe. We sat. We ate. We heard dozens of languages buzzing about in one room. We had come to Madrid expecting to explore a city of Spanish culture, and what we discovered was the amazing spiritual (and gastronomical) appetite of faithful Catholics all over the world. We also discovered that there’s just nothing else quite like a cheap and easy fast food stop on a never-ending road.