.- It was one of the most remarkable global manifestations of the Catholic faith in recent memory. But since pilgrims have started returning home from World Youth Day, some are talking about the disorganization they experienced and how the event could be improved.
“My sons went to World Youth Day in a group of 29,” wrote one mother from St. Joan of Arc parish in Denver, Colo.
“When they got to the Vigil on the Saturday night they were turned away, and flatly refused admittance despite their WYD credentials and being at the correct section. Basically they were told the section was full. No admittance. As you can imagine, the kids were very upset.”
Their story has been repeated in other personal anecdotes: the pilgrims were on time, at right venue, and had the correct passes but were refused entry. Organizers estimate that around 100,000 of the 1.5 million pilgrims were affected by such problems.
Although pilgrimages usually contain some form of penance, many pilgrims were not expecting the lack of portable toilets at the venue, the condition of those that were available, and the lack of transport to and from downtown Madrid. When it came to redeeming pre-paid food vouchers at the designated outlets, some pilgrims were told after waiting in line three to four hours that all the food was gone.
Yago de la Cierva, Director of Communications for WYD 2011 in Madrid, told CNA Aug. 31 that what happened at Cuatro Vientos “is that we are talking about young people, and in many countries, a wall is seen not as a barrier but an invitation to jump and go forward.” The communications director said that this attitude resulted in many young people simply abandoning their designated areas in search of a better vantage point.
Another issue was that many groups arrived with unregistered pilgrims and so used their limited passes on a repeated basis. “We are not talking about a few cases, but something done in an organized way,” he said.
The result was a greater number of people in the venue and too many of them in the wrong zones. Hence the authorities decided to close the entry gates due to prevent unsafe overcrowding.
“It really was a pity, but in any event, people’s safety comes first,” said de la Cierva.
It is estimated that around 75 percent of all pilgrims were unregistered. While 445,000 had registered beforehand, as many at 2 million young people descended on Madrid for the week’s events. Spanish telecommunications companies confirmed that there were over 1.5 million individual cell phone numbers at the Sunday morning closing Mass.
“At the same time, we have to put this in context: less than 5 percent remained outside for the vigil and everybody who wanted was able to come in for the Mass the next day. Each person left outside is important for us and we are sorry that it happened, but the proportion of people inside was quite high, I must say.”
So what lessons can be learned from Madrid for the next World Youth Day, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2013?
The Rio organizational team, aware of the fact that they only have 23 months to prepare for their gathering, traveled to Madrid earlier this month to learn any lessons they could. The Madrid organizers will also draw up a final audit of their event to be presented to both the Rio team and the Vatican.
What might surprise some is that World Youth Day has no central organizing committee, an arrangement that de la Cierva thinks should change. In his view, World Youth Day “should work towards professionalization.”
“It’s really a pity that some of the experience accumulated in these three years will be lost, because in many aspects Rio will start almost from scratch. Unfortunately, that was what happened in the past with Cologne, Sydney and also Madrid.”
His solution is to have a core of experienced people who can advise local committees on best practices. This is what happens at Olympic Games. “Let’s not forget that, in terms of participation, a WYD could be three or four times bigger than the Olympics.”
Despite any disappointments with the organization of World Youth Day Madrid, the overwhelming majority of pilgrims did seem to have a very positive experience.
“Yes, overall it was a very good experience even though we didn’t see the Holy Father,” said Fr. Joseph Cao, who led the group from St. Joan of Arc.
“It was truly a pilgrimage and that always comes with suffering,” observed Fr. Cao whose group also got lost in Madrid at one point. “But we still got the spiritual benefits of pilgrimage, and I’m sure the kids will grow in the faith of the Catholic Church as a result.”
“We do know that we made mistakes,” concluded Yago de la Cierva, “but pilgrims and volunteers together gave an incredibly powerful testimony of how the person and the message of Jesus can be the secret for happiness for many young people.”