In 2011, I had the amazing opportunity to go to World Youth Day in Madrid[i] for which I am exceedingly grateful to God. He knows me deeply, and at that time I needed him so much. If not for God’s grace, I don’t know where I would be now.
When I first heard about World Youth Day, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go for the Chinese government often tries to restrict Christians from participating in international events of a religious nature. Moreover, I wasn’t sure if I was worthy to go as during that time I had fallen in love with the wrong person and nearly walked in sin with him. However, God arranged a priest from my hometown to ask me to attend World Youth Day in Spain. At that moment, I truly felt God’s love and calling to come back to Him.
There was a good group of us who went—all Chinese Catholics from different parts of China, including a few priests. We went everywhere together, going first on pilgrimage in France and Spain on the way to World Youth Day in Madrid. We visited many beautiful churches, holy places and homes of famous saints. Every day and at every place I was moved with tears. I cannot tell you why I was so moved, but I felt it must surely be the Holy Spirit.
We also visited Lourdes,[ii] where a lowly peasant girl experienced visions of the blessed Mother with a message of prayer and repentance. Being present in that holy place and reflecting on the abundant love that Mary gave her Son helped me in my brokenness receive the peace and consolation of Jesus’ mercy through the humble witness of His mother. The cool refreshing touch of the water from the spring at Lourdes felt as though it was washing over me, cleansing me, and healing my heart from the burden of sin that I carried with me.
At that time, I felt so great a sinner, and yet I felt that God loves me so much. When I visited many of the churches and cathedrals, I was amazed by their beauty and felt the presence of God in these sacred places that had witnessed the prayers and petitions of so many Christian faithful such as myself.
Each day brought with it its own sense of grace and understanding. Early on in the trip, while one of the very kind and gentle priests was out of the room, one of the other priests stood up and criticized that priest before the whole group in a very unkind fashion. I was extremely upset by his behavior—especially as it was enacted before our group of impressionable pilgrims. In fact, that priest said many unkind things and was condescending even toward us. I could not believe that a priest would behave that way; I was angry and could not forgive him. I wanted to tell him how hurtful his words were and that he shouldn’t be setting such a bad example for the rest of us pilgrims. After that day, I went to my room and cried tears of anger, sadness, and disappointment that a priest, who has chosen a life of serving God, could show himself to be so selfish and uncaring.
For many days I remained upset with this priest and did my best to control my anger. I brought my concerns before the Lord, asking him how a priest could act in this way—especially one brought into our midst to accompany us on our pilgrimage for World Youth Day.
Then, soon after we visited the home of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, whose words inspired me with the power and grace of God. As a Discalced Carmelite nun,[iii] Saint Thérèse spent her young life devoted to prayer, especially for missionaries and priests. “We must pray for priests!” she encouraged through her words and example. “They are human beings who, though devoting their lives to God, possess their own flaws and weaknesses and, thus, greatly need our prayers as well!”
Hearing these words, I knew that God was inviting me to grow deeper in my faith. This pitiable priest needed my prayers rather than my pent-up anger. He was probably suffering hurt in his own life and needed to experience God’s mercy and love. I knew then that as a Catholic, I must conduct myself according to the words of Saint Thérèse and pray for this priest with the same mercy and understanding that Jesus showed to all those sinners who implored his mercy and forgiveness. As I began to pray for this priest, I realized that the burden of bitterness and anger I had previously felt toward him was being lifted. Simultaneously, I was being given a new direction for my spiritual life: to humble myself in prayer for all those who serve God’s holy church. Through God’s mysterious ways I learned to become a better Christian. Such is the grace and infinite wisdom of our Lord!
Indeed, with each passing day, the lives of the saints, the devotion of the faithful, the joy of the Spirit in fellowship with other Chinese Catholics all brought with them their own special graces. God was so present in every moment that often I wasn’t aware of his hand on our journey until later when he would reveal his wisdom to us in a way that helped all of us to grow stronger in our faith. I learned a lot from our pilgrimage, especially the strength needed for the journey ahead, both in faith and in life.
Along the way, we often ran into other pilgrims from other countries, all taking the opportunity to visit the plethora of holy sites in Europe in anticipation of World Youth Day. Seeing so many of God’s people, so many young adults from every race and culture, reminded me of how glorious God’s Church is and what a great God we have.
Of course, all our travels culminated in the weeklong celebration for World Youth Day in Madrid. We were surrounded by a great number of people of faith. Well over a million young adults crowded the streets, squares, and churches of Madrid to rejoice and celebrate our faith in Christ our Savior. Everywhere we went, when people saw that we were from China, they clapped and shouted with praise and were very happy to meet us. Many of us would just break into spontaneous prayer, praying for one another and singing songs of praise. It was a truly festive atmosphere filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Each day was filled with prayer, faith teaching, daily Mass, cultural activities, and many fellowship opportunities to interact with other young adult Catholics from different countries and cultures. Our prayerful excitement overflowed as we gathered together in prayer with the Pope for Eucharistic adoration before our blessed Jesus. Despite the inclement weather, the Lord won out the day as evidenced by over a million young Catholics filling the area. On the final day of the event, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a holy Mass with a message for all of Christ’s young people: “Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person with all our understanding, will, and feelings to God’s self-revelation.”
He further encouraged us to respond to Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?” with generosity and courage by saying: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God who gave your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.”
It is this complete trust in the love and life of Jesus Christ that beckons me forth. He had shown his love for me so many times on that journey; I felt blessed every day.
These blessings continue in my life to the present. During World Youth Day, as I struggled with the weight of my own sin, a sentence came to me: “God walks with people in pain.” Now I always remember this sentence and daily receive grace from it.
After I returned home from my World Youth Day pilgrimage, I found the strength to refuse that person who so tempted me earlier to fall into sin with him. As I continued to prayerfully reflect on my experience at World Youth Day and the many graces I had received, I chose to remain single for almost a year. Near the end of that year, I met my present husband—a strong Catholic—who truly is a gift from God. I now have a lovely baby and have just discovered that I am blessed to be pregnant again with a new life inside me.
Thanks be to God always.
[i] A Catholic event held August 16–21, 2011 in Madrid, Spain that focuses on engaging youth with their faith. Begun in 1985, World Youth Day emphasizes Christian unity among pilgrims from differing cultures. Part of this event is the pope's public appearance to lead the faithful in prayer and inspire them to more closely follow Christ.
[ii] Many Catholics believe that the Mother of Jesus appeared to a young girl named Bernadette Soubrious with a message of penance, repentance, and prayer for the salvation of souls. As the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, Catholics believe that Mary is a messenger of grace and prayer. Lourdes is one of the more famous, modern, pilgrimage sites, where there have been reported hundreds, if not thousands, of miraculous healings. Catholics venerate Mary with honor and respect; as Jesus honored her as Queen of Heaven and Earth, so too does the Catholic Church.
[iii] The Discalced Carmelites, or Barefoot Carmelites, is a Catholic order established in 1593 by St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, both known for their efforts to reform the Carmelite order and for their intense contemplative spirituality, authoring such great spiritual works as Interior Castle and Dark Night of the Soul, respectively. Discalced Carmelites are men and women who dedicate themselves to a life of prayer. The Carmelite nuns live in cloistered (enclosed) monasteries and follow a completely contemplative life.
Photo Credit: Fot. Hanna Grabowska by Madrid11, on Flickr