At World Youth Day, journey’s joy was in a lesson learned

Peter Johnson poses at Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, a bullfighting arena in Madrid, Spain, during World Youth Day, held Aug. 16-21. He and other Catholics from Iowa took in Spanish culture during their pilgrimage.

By Peter Johnson

Many times when we think about pilgrimages, we think about travelling to far-away places, experiencing new things and deepening our faith. What is usually not considered is the penance and suffering during a pilgrimage that hones our faith, deepening it.

Our trip to Spain was full of great times and new experiences, but not without an occasional moment of suffering — God’s way of giving us an opportunity to offer it up.

We were on the plane for hours, and the excitement built as we saw land again on the other side of the Atlantic. I will always remember watching the sunrise out of the window of the plane. We landed and were shipped off to spend time in Caceres, Spain. Caceres was a four-hour bus ride away in western Spain. Host families who volunteered to feed us and provide a place to stay took us in. From them we learned the Spanish way of doing things, which meant eating dinner late, arriving a little late and just enjoying the state of “being” rather than “doing.”

Our pilgrimage inside of a pilgrimage was a day trip to Fatima, Portugal, where Our Lady appeared to three children. We arrived a little late, and because we were travelling with the Diocese of Des Moines, Bishop Richard Pates had to be whisked away to concelebrate the Mass. I got confused in the shuffle and followed him.  Long story short, the guys and I who were walking together were given albs and the opportunity to serve Mass at Fatima. I will never forget walking down in the procession in front of thousands of people.


After our stay in Caceres, we headed back to Madrid to prepare for Pope Benedict XVI. In the four or five days we spent in Madrid leading up to the pope’s entrance into the city we attended many talks given by people such as Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. Along with the many events we participated in to learn about our faith, we also engaged in Spanish culture, attending a Spanish bullfight.

The pope finally arrived, and we were waiting in the square for him to appear in the famous Popemobile. We arrived about three hours early and it was packed then. The crowd grew to the point where I couldn’t move my arms or anything else. It was hot and uncomfortable, but the excitement of the moment made it bearable: yet another opportunity to offer up our suffering.

Later that week, we were not admitted into the airfield to attend the vigil Mass and camp for the night. This was extremely disappointing after walking for 45 minutes to get there. We were turned away, nothing to be done, and in that moment I realized that my pilgrimage was not just for the pictures of the pope, or even attending the papal Mass. The purpose of the pilgrimage was a lesson in offering my suffering up to God. Things may not always go right, and things you expect may turn out differently, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try. The joy of a pilgrimage is the suffering, and offering it up.

(Peter Johnson of Sidney, Iowa, is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Iowa who returned from a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, last month. He was among five students from the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City who joined more than 50 pilgrims on a trip organized by the Diocese of Des Moines.)

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