Pilgrims will likely not forget hiking with temperatures over 90 degrees in order to encounter the million other people arriving at the same site and looking for a place to sleep, only for their belongings later to be soaked or blown away by the rain and high winds that caused a chapel constructed on the site to collapse. Still, inclement weather was but a preface to the deeper atmosphere at the conclusion of World Youth Day in Spain.
At the beginning of his homily, Pope Benedict expressed that his heart was full of joy in seeing young people from all ends of the world gathered together - and still gathered together, despite how the weather affected the almost entirely tent-less pilgrims who slept outside the night before. Many had responded to the storm with even more singing and dancing, and millions of us here in Madrid had tasted a similar joy during this week.
And the joy was contagious. I previously wrote about the kindness of complete strangers. After several more days of a million-plus young pilgrims erupting into chants and songs in an array of languages wherever they went, many in Madrid were swept up in the spirit. It was analogously to the sleeping mat that during last night's storm literally blew into the arms of a student in my group who had failed to bring anything on which to sleep.
While walking to and from the site of the final World Youth Day vigil and Mass, the joyful smiles of gratitude from the previously hot but recently refreshed pilgrims were only surpassed by the residents of third-floor apartments throwing down buckets of water upon us and seemingly having the time of their lives doing it.
An elderly woman, seeing a group of thirteen of us walking back from the site, intuitively asked whether we needed to use a bathroom - exactly the thing we had been searching for without success - and invited all of us up to her apartment to use the restroom and insisted that we also take cold beverages and fruit. We delighted in her generosity, and she beamed with joy in being able to assist us.
Then, upon reaching the high school at which I'm staying after a long journey back, I could not help but laugh and yet not be surprised at overhearing one U.S. student who does not speak Spanish recount to his friend how he had gone to a restaurant where a man insisted on buying him a drink. While the only words that the student could understand were "cerveza" (beer) and "el Papa" (the Pope), he understood the man's desire to welcome and celebrate the presence of the pilgrims here.
The 20th-century Jesuit Pierre Teillhard de Chardin said that "joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." After seeing the Pope, encountering over a million fellow young people who share their faith, attending liturgical celebrations in various languages with music that moves their hearts, many young people explicitly attest to feeling as if they have been in the presence of God and that they are "rooted in Christ"-- part of the theme of this year's World Youth Day. All while exuding a contagious joy that can be an indication of that presence.