by Jeanne Guillemette, MH Belgium.
This past August much of our life revolved around World Youth Day in Cologne, for we had the joy of receiving a number of pilgrims, on their way to or from Cologne.
Two groups came from Canada: one group of 17 youth from Edmonton, who call themselves the FROG Squad (Fully Relying On God), and another (8 youth) from Winnipeg whom we called “The Dream Team.”
We got to know these groups over barbecues, campfires, and pizza, and we enjoyed their youthful enthusiasm. We were also grateful to have their priests with us to celebrate Mass every day, and the groups joined our community prayers as well.
One of the more colorful groups who stayed with us was from Paris, France—a group of 40 on bicycles. I will always remember the sight of the young religious Sister who came with them, in her shorts and t-shirt, her black veil fluttering out from under her helmet.
This group, which only stayed overnight, hurriedly took showers while we took their clothes to the nearest laundromat for drying.
We spent the evening with them, talking until almost midnight, about Madonna House, answering their questions, and listening to their reflections about the faith.
Our parish rectory also lodged pilgrims. One of their groups consisted of twelve young actors from Pontoise, France, led by a priest who knew the theater arts.
After Mass we all went to Namur, the nearby city, where we watched them stage an outdoor spectacle consisting of stilt-walking, fire-blowing, and skits about the lives of six saints from their region. They were putting on this show in various cities as they made their way to Cologne.
Other pilgrims came in ones or twos—two Americans from Connecticut, one Swiss friend who had spent time here as a working guest, a couple from Ottawa with their 8 week old baby (possibly the youngest pilgrim at World Youth Day), two of our own MH staff—(Petra Muller from MH Arizona, and Ellie Pettersen from MH England)—and Bishop Richard Smith, the bishop of the diocese of Pembroke, in which Combermere is located.
After all our practice receiving retreatant groups in the past, we were like a well-oiled machine, cleaning rooms, welcoming newcomers and providing meals.
Of course, it’s one thing to host pilgrims and another thing to join them.
Six of us went to Cologne to attend the closing Mass. We got up at 3 a.m., piled into the van, and discovered that the headlights weren’t working! So we squeezed into our small car instead (minus one of us), and drove for 2½ hours. Then we looked for and found a parking spot, found the shuttle bus (the search took a half hour) and walked for an hour to Marienfeld, the site of the Mass.
There we found a spot almost a kilometer from the main altar, a place within easy view of a screen.
It was amazing to see how recollected and attentive those around us were during the Mass. At times the silence was palpable. And what a joy to hear our new pope “live” in 4 or 5 different languages! It was a wonderful experience of the universal Church.
The challenge came when we, along with approximately a million other people, began to head home. An ever-increasing number of people waited for an insufficient number of shuttle busses, and our group was forced to split up.
It was six hours before we all got back together at the parking lot. And each of us had a “survival story” to tell. Such is the experience of moving in a huge crowd. But we all agreed that it was well worth it.
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