You couldn’t say we didn’t see it coming. Actually, it had been all around us for at least an hour, the darkening sky lit up with so many impressive lightning bolts. But when the wind really started to blow and when the rain really started to pour down on us, we were surprised by the ferocity of the storm, all one million of us.
We had gathered a few hours before in the setting sun, waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to join us for a prayer vigil on the open fields of the Cuatro Vientos air force base in Madrid. I was one of a thousand bishops sitting up on a huge stage, mixed in with at least as many young people chosen from among the crowd. This prayer vigil was to be the high point of World Youth Day The plan was that five young adults would bring forth questions representative of the kinds of questions young Catholics around the world ask themselves; a passage of the Gospel would be read; and the Pope would answer those questions in the light of the Gospel.
Well, the questions were asked, something like: “How do we know God is with us? How can we be faithful? How can we live our convictions in societies that don’t seem to support them? How can we explain our faith to those who don’t share it?” And the Gospel was indeed proclaimed.
But then, the world went crazy, and the winds howled, and the rains came down. Some of us on stage had been given umbrellas. I was in the first row of a section, and with those on my right and on my left, we set them in front of us like shields since the rain was slashing across the stage horizontally.
The World Youth Day Cross, some ten feet high, had been set up facing the crowd next to us on the stage: the wind blew it down upon the bishops, some of whom got knocked to the ground, bruised and bleeding. Young volunteers hurried to the rescue. We were all were getting drenched, our nice solemn bishops’ robes turning into old sodden rags.
And a million young people sang and danced. The harder the wind blew, the stronger the rain came, the louder they cheered. It was one of the most incredible scenes I have ever witnessed. Though I was too far to see, I learned afterwards that the Pope was surrounded by aides, holding many umbrellas up around him to keep him dry. But he stayed on. And after the worst was over, he told the crowd he would skip his speech (they could always read it on the internet later), but he would not skip the intense moment of prayer known as adoration.
So as the rain let up after what seemed like at least half an hour of fury, a priest came out with the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, and a million young people fell to their knees, and a deep, calm silence slowly blanketed the field. I don’t know that I have ever heard a more beautiful, inspiring or moving sound than those ten minutes of total silence kept by one million people.
Non-Catholics (and some Catholics, unfortunately) will have trouble understanding this, but we believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ makes himself present to us in this sacrament. The silence of a million young adults last Saturday evening, after the fury of that storm, will remain for me the most powerful witness to the truth of that divine presence.