World Youth Day was a success but, my goodness, it was badly organised

A pilgrim tries to escape the baking heat as he waits for the Pope at Cuatro Vientos airfield (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

It’s Thursday evening in Madrid. You’ve been walking all day in the searing heat. There is mud on your knees. Your feet are filthy and your T-shirt sticks to your back soaked in sweat. You wait, pressed up against a barrier, after sharply reprimanding an Italian for pushing past you as you have been waiting in the baking sun for three hours and you want a good view. You look again at your map provided by the World Youth Day organisers just to check that the Pope will definitely be passing your way on the Popemobile route that is marked out. “Any minute now,” you tell yourself patiently. After all, there are four World Youth Day volunteers stood right in front of you, watching the expectant crowd. If the Pope was not due to come your way the volunteers would tell you, right?

Wrong. In fact, when we eventually double-checked with the volunteers when the Holy Father was arriving, we were casually informed: “Oh, he’s not coming this way anymore.” Well, at least our disappointed group could go off and have a nice supper using the pilgrim vouchers we had paid for. But of course there was a three-hour queue for pizza and when we finally got to the counter we were told that the food had run out.

It is, of course, difficult to cater for and control a crowd of up to two million pilgrims and, to be honest, dismay at long queues for food is illustrative of how lucky we are. If experiencing hunger and thirst is a rarity in our lives then we are extremely fortunate. But some inexcusable preliminary errors were certainly made and misinformation about where Pope Benedict was actually due to be was by no means the gravest of them.

A constant feature of last week’s World Youth Day was that events were oversubscribed and completely chaotic. I don’t want to be critical of World Youth Day as I wholeheartedly support this Pope and the principle behind the event. But our capacity for joy was continuously stifled by the shambolic organisation.

Introducing the word “queue” into the World Youth Day vernacular and then directing the volunteers to enforce this principle would, for instance, have avoided the carnage at the portaloos on the morning of the papal Mass. Furthermore, if enough loos had been provided the chaos that emerged would have been less likely and pilgrims would have been more inclined to drink water in the baking heat, as opposed to sitting crossed-legged, opting for dehydration and paralysis rather than rugby-tackling their way through the hopping crowds.

What was most appalling was the fiasco surrounding the papal Mass at Cuatro Vientos airfield on Sunday morning. I was one among an estimated 200,000 Catholics who were turned away. Although many young people carried pilgrim passes and were allocated an area in advance, they found there was no way of making the event they had so looked forward to, despite arriving at the crack of dawn that morning or camping outside overnight.

There were many people I would have gladly given my place to even if I had been granted admittance. One poor girl who scrambled up a bank and tried, like me, to squeeze through a hole in a wire fence lost her balance amid the swarming crowd and fell straight down the dusty bank, clearly in pain. And one Slovakian student, who had saved his pennies to fly in that morning especially, kept saying to me in bewilderment: “I have a ticket. Why can’t I get in?” Simply because the organisers were not prepared for 1.4 million pilgrims, that’s why.

Perhaps that’s not unreasonable, but surely in that case people who had registered as pilgrims and who had allocated spaces, such as my Slovakian friend, should have had priority.

Several pilgrims who did gain entry to Mass said they did not understand why so many were turned away. “There was plenty of space,” they explained. From reports I picked up travelling back to the airport that night, a lot of people were turned away for no reason other than a complete lack of leadership, initiative and imagination in a moment of crisis.

The silver lining is that future host countries have an easy act to follow. I do hope this lack of pressure will galvanise the Church in Britain to put in a bid for 2015/16. After all, the only way is up.