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Standing in a Field with a Million Friends

July 5th, 2013by Emily Macke

A month away from my freshman year of college, I stuffed my backpack onto the bottom of a bus and took off with about 50 young people heading north to Toronto.

Three years later, I squeezed the same backpack into the overhead compartment on an airplane carrying excited young people to Cologne, Germany.

Another six years after that, I was chaperoning a group of high school students as they nervously boarded a plane – some for the first time – on our way to Madrid, Spain.

Each of these treks to other countries was ultimately for one evening, standing in a field with a million close friends (close by proximity), waiting to be addressed by the Vicar of Christ.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II invited young people to join him in Rome for Palm Sunday.  On that day, 300,000 young people came.  This set the stage for international gatherings every two or three years with millions of young people sacrificing everything from comfort to cleanliness to personal space to savings accounts in order to attend.  As the leader for my first two World Youth Days insisted, “This is a pilgrimage, not a vacation.”

US Pilgrim carries flag at World Youth DayWorld Youth Day is not a 24-hour event.  Rather, it involves three or four days of catechesis and a celebration of Catholic culture.  Bishops and cardinals from across the world give dynamic lectures in each attendee’s native language.  Mass according to native language is offered each day.  Catholic musicians, artists and speakers lead concerts, art exhibits, movie screenings and presentations. 

These preparatory days involve meeting strangers from throughout the world – trading miniature flags or pins to proudly decorate one’s World Youth Day backpack, attempting to converse with hand signals and smiles if words are misunderstood.  Friendships are made.  Pictures are taken.  E-mails are exchanged.  Meals are shared.

But on the Thursday of each World Youth Day event, a new guest arrives.  The Holy Father enters the crowds of boisterous, exuberant youth, each touched by the witness of an elderly man who has made his own sacrifices to share time with them.

These are among the most momentous memories of the three World Youth Days I experienced.  I saw Pope John Paul II, only a few feet away, bravely placing all of his energy into a smile, despite the difficulties of Parkinson’s, waving and making eye contact with each of us.  And I remember the tears, laughter and cries of joy that we each shared when he had passed by, and the spontaneous prayer circles that formed as the Popemobile drove away.

Then there was Pope Benedict’s entrance on the Rhine River on a boat.  He was only a speck of white as big as my thumb, but he was our new Pope, and he was greeting the youth in his home country.  The German young people proudly waved their flags to greet him.

In Madrid, Spain, the weather was so unbearably hot, that firemen shot powerful torrents of water from their trucks, attempting to give us relief.  Then we awaited the smile and humility of Pope Benedict XVI, as he winded through the crowds for his last World Youth Day.  We cheered and waved.

World Youth Day continues with the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening.

Saturday morning comes bright and early with pilgrims preparing for the walking portion of their trek.  Perhaps a bus or subway is part of the journey – with thousands of youth packed like sardines, singing hymns and praise and worship – but part of the journey is always on foot.  The youth hike to a big field in the bright summer sun.  And then they set up camp, laying tarps, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes or blankets on the ground to claim a small space for the night.

And then there is more waiting.  When dark begins to settle, the Holy Father again comes to the crowd.  Sitting in a field for hours is uncomfortable, but the silence and respect given to the Vicar of Christ by the young pilgrims is astounding.  A prayer vigil is held.  The youth pray with the Pope.  They pray for him.  He prays for them.

When the Holy Father leaves the young people for the evening, their prayer continues.  Some sleep, but many spend time in Eucharistic Adoration.  It is difficult to sleep on ant hills and piles of dirt, and some youth offer up their pain or inconveniences for the intentions they have carried with them.

Sunday morning, the final moments of World Youth Day involve a papal Mass.  It’s incredible, really, to stand in that field, realizing that the successor of St. Peter, chosen by Christ, is here and is bringing Christ to His disciples in the 21st century.  The young people see this man, this octogenarian, and they don’t see irrelevance, boredom or hypocrisy.  They see a man who loves, who is radical, who has given everything to follow the One who has given more than the everything we can offer.  They see a man who has hope in the youth, who trusts them, who invites them to something more.

And the young people leave that field – in Toronto or Cologne or Madrid – knowing that they are not alone.  They know that there are other young people who are passionately Catholic.  They know that the Pope is challenging them to live a radical life of faith, hope and love.  They know that Christ is calling them.

Suddenly, the sacrifices, the fundraisers, the uncomfortable school-floor accommodations, the unidentifiable foods for lunch and dinner, the smells of 100 people crammed onto a bus, the aching legs after a several mile hike – suddenly, it is all worth it.  It’s even worth experiencing again.

This July, when Pope Francis attends his first World Youth Day, this same story will likely take place once again in the lives of two million youth.  Standing in a field with a million friends and the Pope, they will be rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith, called to make disciples of all nations.

Photo credit: CNS photo, Paul Haring

Emily Macke

Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods ( She received her Master's in Theology from the John Paul II Institute and enjoys speaking and writing about the gift of the faith. She blogs at Unshakeable Hope