A journey in faith: GW Catholics travel to Madrid to see the Pope

Catholic students made a sojourn of faith this summer.

Nine students from the GW Newman Catholic Student Center traveled to the 2011 World Youth Day festival in Madrid for a week of events dedicated to celebrating Catholicism.

“For Catholics, the Pope is the face of Christ on Earth,” Michael Russo, president of the student board at the Newman Center, said.

The festival featured concerts, question-and-answer sessions with bishops and special seminars, called catechesis, sorted by language, which enabled attendees to learn the “teachings of the Church,” Russo said.

The headline event of World Youth Day, a final mass led by Pope Benedict XVI, brought the nine students closer to the most renowned physical representation of Christ than they had ever expected.

“Just having the chance to be in his [the Pope’s] presence with two million other people can be powerful,” Russo said.

On the Friday before the Pope’s final mass, the festival staged the Stations of the Cross. The ceremony consisted of 14 stations, each of which marks a point along the path from Jesus’ arrest until Crucifixion. For each station, the event organizers arranged statues and replicas—some new, some hundreds of years old—from different churches and cathedrals throughout Spain.

The gesture “really highlighted Spain’s Catholic identity,” said Russo.

Junior Abby Bergren said the pilgrimage was truly a positive experience, despite certain uncomfortable caveats.

“You haven’t gone to the bathroom in 24 hours, you haven’t eaten in 24 hours,” she said, “There is dirt everywhere; people crying, people praying, people celebrating mass. It’s overwhelming — and not always in a positive way.”

Despite a metro system which dwarfs that of D.C., the influx of visitors taxed the city’s vast public space, as Madrid’s population of over 3 million nearly doubled within the span of a few days.

“The amount of people completely blew my mind,” Bergren said. “You can’t go on the metro, you can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t go to sleep without being surrounded by hundreds of people.”

“You can’t move, but you understand: This is why we’re here,” she added.

The Newman Center students first arrived in Europe on Aug. 7, along with Rev. Greg Shaffer and campus minister Amy West.

During the week prior to the festival in Madrid, the GW students toured a series of Catholic landmarks around Europe. Their travel route included Paris and Lourdes, France, as well as stops at St. John’s Basilica in Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Before the pilgrimage could become a reality, the students had to acquire the funds to take them there.

Each student needed to raise $1,500 in order to participate. Starting in the spring, the students traveled to local parishes in an attempt to cover the costs of attendance. Many of them managed to cover their fees through fundraising. The Newman Center financed the entire trip through donations, he added.

After sacrificing rest, energy, meals and personal space for an entire week, the students boarded the return plane to America, “utterly exhausted,” said Bergren.

“Everyone who went on the trip is sort of on a World Youth Day high,” said Russo.

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