The papal welcome ceremony at Plaza de Cibeles Aug. 19 was easily one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I ended up being only a few feet away from Pope Benedict XVI as he passed through the streets of Madrid in the Popemobile. Although it all feels like one big blur, here is a breakdown of what led up to the day’s grand finale.
1:27 p.m.: After meeting with the Office of Catholic youth group, the leaders told us we needed to get to Cibeles as soon as possible in order to secure good seats. With a big Canadian flag being held up high to lead the way, we started walking very briskly. This soon turned into running through the streets. When we got to the front entrance, half our group made it in but the other half (my half) was stopped by police and told we had to enter the square via a different route. We changed our route and kept on running.
2:25 p.m.: We made it in. After changing our location three or four times, we re-locate to a spot near the papal route (where Pope Benedict would pass–so are were told–in the Popemobile before the ceremony).
3:05 p.m.: Reality kicks in. We realize we have about five hours to wait before the pope arrives. We are directly in the sun and sitting down on the ground is not a good option–without a towel or mat the ground is extremely hot. I lather on SPF 60 sunscreen and begin the countdown.
3:32 p.m.: A group of nuns sitting in white habits behind us seems to have initiated a water fight with pilgrims. Everywhere you look, more and more pilgrims are gathering. Flags upon flags upon flags are waving; many that I’ve never seen before.
4:05 p.m.: I go stand by the barriers by the road with the hopes that I’ll be able to get close to the Pope when he walks by–if he does at all. I squeeze into a spot near the front which I will have to defend for the next couple hours.
4:32 p.m.: Volunteers come out with small water packs that they’re spraying at the pilgrims who are waiting by the barricades. Then, firefighters come out with massive hoses and start spraying the crowd. Every one screams with delight whenever this happens–it’s a welcome relief from the blazing heat. I enjoy it but hide the camera and duck every time they pass.
5:27 p.m.: The pilgrims are shouting cheers like crazy. After hours and hours of waiting (I know some pilgrims got here as early as 10 a.m.), they are anxious and excited to see their pope. “I really want to take a picture of the pope,” says Bailey, a pilgrim from Texas. “My grandma has been going through some hard times and told me it would mean a lot to her.”
7:57 p.m.: I can see the Popemobile coming up the street. It’s a moment of disbelief and excitement. This can’t be happening. Pope Benedict is coming! The crowd is screaming, pushing. And then he’s only a few feet in front of me. In shock, I take pictures, but my hands are shaking.
8:10 p.m.: The Pope has passed our section but suddenly, everyone is jumping and chanting again, louder than ever. I look to the left and see the Popemobile coming back! It is absolute chaos. He passes us again on the way to the stage and I’m not as shocked, so I handle the camera better. Although I saw him closeup mostly through the lens of a camera, it was a surreal experience. Did that really just happen?!
8:31 p.m.: The prayer service starts. The pope has different addresses for youth in different languages. “Make trust in Christ’s word the foundation of your lives,” Pope Benedict tells the English-speaking pilgrims. “Planted and built up in Him, firm in the faith and open to the power of the Holy Spirit, you will find your place in God’s plan and enrich the church with your gifts.”
8:49 p.m.: The Gospel is sung. During the service, people keep randomly shouting, “Viva la papa” or “Viva el papa,” depending on where they’re from. The crowd responds through one united cheer.
10:05 p.m.: And then it’s all over. I’m thrilled, still a little shocked and tired from the long day. It was all worth it. Truly, it was a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life.