Roselyn, a Kenyan social worker in her twenties, greeted Benedict XVI in Swahili and – in front of a mammoth crowd of one and a half million youth – asked him about the meaning of life in the midst of poverty and pain. She was one of five young people from different parts of the world who met the Pope before a vigil of prayer at Cuatro Vientos airfield, in the outskirts of Madrid, last 20th August. He was not to read the answer he had prepared, that exhorted young people like her to ‘have no fear to the world or to the future’. Out of the blue, a heavy storm came and drenched all participants, forcing organizers to interrupt the event. The 84-year old Pontiff ignored advice from his assistants to leave the stage and braved the strong wind staying put until calm returned: ‘You have proved that your faith is stronger than the rain’, he quietly told them.That was the peak of the World Youth Day, celebrated this year in Madrid. Out of the one and a half million pilgrims who came, around half a million came from outside Spain. A total of 193 countries were represented, most of them from Europe – Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland – plus the United States and Brazil.
Despite the fact that Africa is the continent were the number of Catholics grows faster, their number was not impressive. African youth were no more than 6,000, 1,000 of which South Africans and 500 Congolese. The high cost of air tickets and visa restrictions account for the fact that so few of them youth could attend. Despite that, many young people tried their best. The members of the Kinshasa University Choir raised money giving concerts, and young people from parishes in Nairobi washed cars, baked cakes and organized raffles to raise funds for their trip. If things were easier for them, African Churches would send many more people. Few months before the event, the number of Congolese who had signed up for the event reached 1,000. Many came from places like Bukavu or Lumumbashi, 1,700 kilometres away from the capital, Kinshasa. In May, the Episcopal Conference tried, in vain, to convince the Spanish Embassy to waive some of the visa requirements, which included physical presence at the Embassy when making the request. For most of the prospective young pilgrims, having to pay an extra return ticket to Kinshasa was a burden they could not afford and about half of the registered pilgrims gave up.
Fikile Mkhondwana, 21, and Elois Mkhonto, 28, are youth leaders from South Africa. Both of them describe the main problems young people have to face: ‘Unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, drug-addiction and many early deaths due to HIV/AIDS, which force children or adolescents to be in charge of many families’. Both of them said to be delighted with the friendly atmosphere they found in Madrid and appreciated ‘the possibility of living together with young people from other countries and share the Christian faith with them’.
Despite their modest numbers, organizers took care of assuring a fair representation of young people in key events. A Congolese girl and a Rwandan seminarian were among the 12 youngsters selected to have lunch with the Pope on the second day. And during the Way of the Cross organized on Friday evening, ten youngsters from South Sudan carried the cross in one of the stations.