World Youth Day has brought with it many memorable moments already. But for me, the most touching experience so far has been witnessing the meeting between Pope Francis and the young people of Argentina.
The meeting, held Thursday, was not announced until Tuesday, once the World Youth Day festivities had already begun. It was the result of a personal request from Pope Francis, who wanted to meet in a special way with the young people of his home country.
The Pope’s words at that meeting were beautiful, and I encourage you to read them. But I would also like to share a different perspective – that of a pilgrim outside the cathedral. When I heard about the meeting, I decided to join the young people from Argentina to observe their experience in seeing the Holy Father.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian holds about 5,000 people. The Vatican and local police reported that there were more than 30,000 Argentinean pilgrims there. By the time I got to the cathedral, about an hour and a half before the Pope was scheduled to arrive, it was abundantly clear that the majority of the crowd would not fit inside the church.
But the fact that they were not going to get inside the cathedral did not seem to bother them. There was no bitterness, no complaining against the lucky minority who had made it inside.
Instead, they sang and danced and cheered and prayed. They waved flags and made new friends with those around them. It started to rain; everyone shared umbrellas and ponchos. It started to pour; they sang louder. Nothing could dampen their spirits. Some people had been there for hours, but they all had huge smiles on their faces.
The security guards kept coming over to take pictures of the crowd outside of the fence. I imagine we were an impressive sight: tens of thousands of enthusiastic pilgrims crowding around, sporting their favorite Argentine apparel – a sea of blue and white.
When the Holy Father’s car arrived, everyone ran towards the gates of the cathedral, cheering and yelling. With more than 25,000 people running at once, it was more like a stampede.
My mind drifted to Black Friday sales or the grand opening of a new store – other instances in which large groups of people crowd around the entrance to a building, with elbows flying and sometimes an unlucky shopper getting trampled.
It occurred to me how very different this was. Even with everyone running and pushing up against the gate, there was no pushing or shoving. There was no yelling or vying for the best spot. There was no complaining. I was struck by how peaceful it was.
This was not a competition. To these pilgrims, this wasn’t about who could get closest to the Pope, or who could get the best picture. It was about just being there, united with all of Argentina in their joy, pride and love for the Pope – their Pope.
Two hours in the rain, and some of the pilgrims did not even get close enough to get a good look at Pope Francis. And yet they were thrilled, excited and grateful, not upset.
The experience brought tears to my eyes, and I found myself reflecting on the conversion that the Pope has been calling us to – a deeper love of neighbor, a love that is humble and simple and self-sacrificing.
I think Pope Francis would be proud of his fellow Argentinians if he could have seen what was going on in that sea of white and blue. Since his election, the Pope has tried to reinforce the message that we must see Christ in our brothers and sisters, no matter how young, old, poor or marginalized. And in that crowd of 25,000 Argentinians standing outside the cathedral in the rain, there was courtesy and joy and love – a simple, yet beautiful Christian witness that I will not soon forget.