WYD 2013: Protecting the Pope and tears of joy

A choir sings as pilgrims prepare for the World Youth Day closing Mass (Photo: CNS)

Life is full of surprises. If I ever needed proof of this it came when I was asked to protect the Pope on Saturday night.

Think Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. OK, maybe it was not quite The Bodyguard, but I did protect the Pope, or at least I was one of the volunteers called upon to act as a cordon – a human chain.
When the day began I had no idea I would have the opportunity to be so near Pope Francis. It was only later as we all typed away working in the Forte Copacabana media centre that my boss came in, saying to follow her.

We were all rounded up and herded into an area to the side of the main gates of the Forte Copacabana. We knew Pope Francis had driven past here the day before, and some of the volunteers had lined the route then too.

Now I was one of the group waiting patiently for Pope Francis to arrive. We were given our instructions, somewhat seriously. “Keep your arms linked,” he said. “No breaking the link, you are a human chain.” The list went on to include no dancing, no whooping, no jumping on the Pope. The former caused much disappointment among the group, the latter promoted nervous laughter.

The door opened after a final reminder of the rules and regulations and we clasped hands as we were led out. We were about to stand right in front of the Popemobile.

I heard the thundering sound of the papal helicopter as it came into view. There was a loud roar from the pilgrims behind us as they realised the Pope was landing in the Forte. They reached over us climbing and pushing down on our shoulders. Each one of us holding fast.

The gates opened to the Forte and I saw a flash of white as the Popemobile came around the corner. I had my mobile held discreetly in my hand. It was as if I was in a tunnel. The sound faded to background noise. I went to raise my mobile and click the button, but as I did so I remembered something I had said a long time ago in World Youth Day in Madrid.

Often we spend so much time looking through a lens, the moment is lost on us. This was one of those moments. I lowered my mobile just as the Popemobile was level with me and looked, really looked, at what was right in front of me.

Pope Francis was smiling, actually beaming, at all the young people, his arm waving vigorously as he greeted them all. He laughed at the pilgrims excited screams. It was if a rock star had come amongst us. Think teenage girls as they see Justin Bieber in concert, only more intense. Pilgrims were crying and screaming until they were hoarse.

But me? I could not stop grinning at the other volunteers who I was sharing the moment with. I found it hard to explain afterwards. For me World Youth Day is not about meeting the Pope, it is not about getting as close as possible to the stage. If it was I would always be disappointed. No, World Youth Day is about that feeling you get when you share these intense moments.

I always define the success of a World Youth Day by how many tears I shed. Rio was in arrears compared to Madrid – that is until the Vigil on Copacabana.

I made my way along the beach to the Vigil. I took out my rosary, a gift from the papal visit, and began to pray. I had anticipated a tough walk, but as people saw me praying the rosary they stepped aside not wanting to disturb my meditation.

The Vigil was something I had been waiting eagerly for, but now it was here I found it hard to marry up my expectations with the reality. I listened to the testimonies in Portugese, and truly tested my translation technique. Feeling a bit brain drained I hoped for an easier ride when it came to Adoration.

But then that is the beauty of Adoration. The quiet and stillness means there is no need for words, whatever language you speak you can take part.

As Pope Francis began Adoration, we knelt. I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of the love and joy that was infecting the three million pilgrims gathered there.

The screen focused on pilgrims clutching rosaries, crying and praying earnestly. I closed my eyes and let the music cascade over me. I found myself singing aloud in the press pit. It was only when I lifted my hands to brush away the hair from my face that I realised I had been crying.

As I opened my eyes, and attempted to wipe my eyes I saw a camera posed and aimed at my face. My instant reaction was embarrassment, but then I paused and took my hands away. It is often our automatic reaction to hide how much we love God, how much we love our Church, but why should we? It was with this in mind that I lowered my hands, clasping them together again in prayer.

Empowered by this new conviction I kept my eyes open and focused on the Blessed Sacrament. The cool breeze drifted over me, teasing the flags from their poles. I felt at peace. This is what I came to Rio for.

So how does Rio stand up to my World Youth Day test? I did not sob as I did in Madrid, but this time I did something better. I did not hide from the emotion created by seeing Jesus in front of millions of young people. Now I will not hide it when I return home. That is the gift World Youth Day gives, the freedom of faith, and what a gift it is.