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

The papal events at Cuatro Vientos airfield were dangerously chaotic

By on Wednesday, 24 August 2011

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

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.

  • Chris Frank, Reading

    If only England was a catholic country…….or at least was able to sort our a combined bid for england and wales without people going crazy.

  • Rory Pengel

    Sorry it was such a challenge…but your reports were great! Thank you!

    …still kind of wish I was there though.

  • http://twitter.com/josephja Joseph J Anthraper

    I completely understand the frustration here. Many in our pilgrim group did not have food coupons and travel passes until Thursday. Yes, there were quite a lot of organisational problems, quite a lot of technical glitches (specially wrt registration) and quite a lot of things that could have done better.

    But in spite of all this, I think Spain and the organisers need to be congratulated for all what they did right. So many things were absolutely fantastic.

    Above all it was a pilgrimage, which by its very definition is a journey a person makes leaving his/her home, family and comforts, in a search to know God better. Along the journey, there are many sacrifices involved. There is suffering, hunger, pain, exhaustion, extreme weather conditions, crowds, etc. All of these involve self denial in order to obtain the ultimate goal and reach the final destination. Jesus Christ embraced his cross of suffering and death and so, too, should we embrace these sufferings with joy.

    Its sad that we have become a nation of moaners. If we are here, we cry about the rains and when we are in Spain, we cry even louder about the baking heat.
    This is not to say that there were no problems with the WYD 2011. But, the more the problems, the better, as we offer up every suffering for the intentions of the Pope and the Church and for you and me. God bless.

  • Bobbo

    The organisation was totally shambolic; quite frankly I fely insulted by the lack of effort the Spaniards put into our welfare.

    The official website is written in pidgin English with circular series of links that did not help us to register, or know if we had registered.  The backpacks were half empty, missing things that other pilgrims had.  The guide books were again written by a non-native speaker.  How hard could it be to find a British or American to proofread?  Instead, everything that we wanted to know in details was unclear.  No speakers to relay sound for the opening Mass, even though we were well within the mapped area in the guide book.  As mentioned above, last-minute un-notified changes to the Papal itinerary.  Huge food queues.  Water turned off in baking heat of Saturday afternoon at Cuatro Vientos.  Adoration chapels collapsing due to inclement weather.  Sending everyone to a single, small Metro station after the final Mass, to wait outside in the midday sun for over an hour while Italians pushed in.  No extra busses laid on to take people back to the city centre.

    All that said, we had a great time and are glad we went.  Our host family couldn’t have been kinder.  But my impression of the official organising committee is that they were out of their depth.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I´ve lived in Madrid for too long.  I had the same experience as you but without the Anglo Saxon sensitivities.  You will never find an Italian or a Spaniard in a queue, it´s just not part of their DNA.  There weren´t enough loos, so what?  Lucky there weren´t internet comment forums 2000 years ago, otherwise the gospels would be a dreary litany of administrative complaints.  I know there is no excuse for bad admin and people being turned away, but really, I also spent three hours trudging to two different metro stations after mass but I didn´t feel any of your mala leche.

  • Jeannine

    If you think Madrid was terribly unorganized, can you imagine what Rio is going to be like 2013! 

    My husband has lived in Brazil for a few yrs & is still quite familiar w/the the way of life over there. He emphatically does not want our daughters to go to WYD in 2013 & not because of the Brazilians’ carefree  attitude of life. He would be very concerned for their safety.

  • Jeannine

    If you think Madrid was terribly unorganized, can you imagine what Rio is going to be like 2013! 

    My husband has lived in Brazil for a few yrs & is still quite familiar w/the the way of life over there. He emphatically does not want our daughters to go to WYD in 2013 & not because of the Brazilians’ carefree  attitude of life. He would be very concerned for their safety.

  • Jeannine

    If you think Madrid was terribly unorganized, can you imagine what Rio is going to be like 2013! 

    My husband has lived in Brazil for a few yrs & is still quite familiar w/the the way of life over there. He emphatically does not want our daughters to go to WYD in 2013 & not because of the Brazilians’ carefree  attitude of life. He would be very concerned for their safety.

  • Oconnordamien

    I was thinking exactly that.
    Whatever you think of the event the safety of the attendees is paramount.

  • Justin

    Thanks for sharing. There must be some way this can be fed back to the Madrid organisers, the Rio organisers and the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Perhaps via the CBCEW who can put in a formal complaint?

    There’s a lot of backslapping going on, it seems to me, but little post-mortem on what went wrong and how things could be improved. That’s the important thing surely? To ensure that this does not happen in Rio. Let’s face it the WYD was a success in spite of the efforts of the organisers.

    The English Church should put in a bid (again) for 2015. Either that, or Japan or Singapore to see things run like clinical clockwork!

  • Anonymous

    All part of the fun surely. Not unsafe, just a bit uncomfortable.

  • Gittles

    As far as food, loos and water is concerned I sort of think it’s a part of the experience. It’s supposed to be a challenge. But I, too, was one of the people who were not let in to Cuatro Vientos – although my group had a pilgrim pass. We managed to stay cheerful and offer it up – but it was a great disappointment. That Vigil and Mass is what everything leads up to. All those months of preparing and ten days of trying pilgrimage. I didn’t expect food, water or loos. I didn’t expect to get into my specific area. But I did expect to get in. 

  • http://twitter.com/bro_james Brother James Hayes

    I sympathise with the negative comments… yes, lots of things could have been done better… but I also agree with the fact that anyone knowingly going to an event where between 1mill. + 2mill. people are expected should be prepared for hiccups. My main gripe was with the choice of venues for the opening Mass, Papal welcome + Way of the Cross. In Cologne 2005, the opening Mass took place in 3 venues simultaneously (Bonn, Dusseldorf + Cologne)… we were in Bonn and it went brilliantly. In Madrid there was mayhem on the streets… no sound, no loos, no translations on the radio… we managed to storm a single small temporary stand a block away from the “main stage” and at least had seats. Things improved thereafter, inc. police security, road closures, etc…

    As regards the final weekend, we took the decision to not do the pilgrimage walk and go straight there by metro after breakfast, arriving in our allotted zone at 11.20a.m. We had been gazumped by those pesky Italians in 2005… not this time. The fire engines hosing us done was an inspired idea, a Godsend. Our group thoroughly enjoyed the experience (we had 6 out of our 21 as young as 14 = 6 girls. A De La Mennais Brothers group from our schools in Southampton + Liverpool) and wished the whole thing could have gone on longer.

    Anyone who expected to arrive after 5pm on the Sat. and simply waltz into their zone was being incredibly naïve, no matter the assurances given by the organisers that their places would be reserved. I must say that the police + volunteers near us were absolutely brilliant at keeping out of our zone anyone who didn’t have the correct pass. Good thing too, as we were then able to squeeze in a dozen or so of the Westminster diocese group late on who did have the right passes.

  • http://twitter.com/bro_james Brother James Hayes

    I sympathise with the negative comments… yes, lots of things could have been done better… but I also agree with the fact that anyone knowingly going to an event where between 1mill. + 2mill. people are expected should be prepared for hiccups. My main gripe was with the choice of venues for the opening Mass, Papal welcome + Way of the Cross. In Cologne 2005, the opening Mass took place in 3 venues simultaneously (Bonn, Dusseldorf + Cologne)… we were in Bonn and it went brilliantly. In Madrid there was mayhem on the streets… no sound, no loos, no translations on the radio… we managed to storm a single small temporary stand a block away from the “main stage” and at least had seats. Things improved thereafter, inc. police security, road closures, etc…

    As regards the final weekend, we took the decision to not do the pilgrimage walk and go straight there by metro after breakfast, arriving in our allotted zone at 11.20a.m. We had been gazumped by those pesky Italians in 2005… not this time. The fire engines hosing us done was an inspired idea, a Godsend. Our group thoroughly enjoyed the experience (we had 6 out of our 21 as young as 14 = 6 girls. A De La Mennais Brothers group from our schools in Southampton + Liverpool) and wished the whole thing could have gone on longer.

    Anyone who expected to arrive after 5pm on the Sat. and simply waltz into their zone was being incredibly naïve, no matter the assurances given by the organisers that their places would be reserved. I must say that the police + volunteers near us were absolutely brilliant at keeping out of our zone anyone who didn’t have the correct pass. Good thing too, as we were then able to squeeze in a dozen or so of the Westminster diocese group late on who did have the right passes.

  • http://www.ameiric.blogspot.com ALVAROMENENDEZBARTOLOME

    I’m from Madrid, and I’ve been in many WYDs (the first one was Paris 1997). What you say in your post is something that always happens, not only in Madrid WYD 2011. You can’t simply satisfy every purpose or every requirement; WYDs never run in the normal course of events…

  • Emmy

    Perhaps future World Youth Day host cities should follow the example of Sydney, Australia.  Sydney was the host city for World Youth Day 2008, and the events surrounding the event couldn’t be more smooth.  How easy would it be to get the plans from the Sydney organizers on how to put on an excellent World Youth Day?

  • AnthonyO91

    I was there on the trek. Having been to WYD before I semi-knew what to expect. I carried a 3 liter bottle of water, 3 water bottles, a thermos with cold water, Special K bars, and chips.

    First let me say that they shouldn’t put something on the ground so we didn’t have to lay on bare grass. There were two ant holes under my sleeping bag. 

    Second there were simply not enough port-o-potties. Nuff said there.

    Third there had to have been a bigger spot for them to host this in Madrid. 

  • guest

    If Toronto can do it, so can London I think…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697126564 Paul Halsall

    These massive events represent a sort of Papal Bonapartism are should be avoided.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697126564 Paul Halsall

    If It’s not part of Italian or Spanish DNA, does that not speak to a basic failing in the religious culture of those countries.  Thank goodness for the good order of the Church of England.

  • Justin

    oh and why is that Paul?? Have you been to one?

    Orrr…is it because if the CofE ever decide to host such and event you’d have about 5 people showing up and you’re just jealous that the Catholic Church can muster nearly 2 million?

    Sour grapes much?

  • Alexanne

    How sad to read many of these comments. It is indeed the way of the world today, people seldom think of what they have rather than what they have not. Yes, I understand the disappointment of those who did not get in to places especially waiting so long and all the other sacrifices that were made along the way, but just to be there was a blessing in itself and if you understood the meaning of pilgrimage perhaps yours would have been very different. Thank God for the opportunity to get to Spain and be in the atmosphere. What has happened to people that they cannot see the good they have instead of looking for more all the time. Oremus pro invicem!

  • Anonymous

    My Grandmother used to say if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

    So in regard to Ms Teahan’s record at the Herald so far:

    “……….”

  • Anonymous

    LOL – do you think the CofE will EVER get the opportunity to organise 2 million pilgrims? 200 perhaps…if your lucky! Good order indeed   ;-)

  • Basil Loft@ss

    Madrid in August? Enough said.

  • Marged

    I think that you were most unfortunate. Our daughter Maria was working during the week and arrived on Friday, collected her Pilgrim pass etc, made her own way to Cuatro Vientos on Saturday and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the vigil, despite the storm. She was present at the Mass and then walked back again with the crowds. Her experience was certainly one of excessive heat, but said there was ample water at the site and that the fire service sprayed the crowd to cool them.I hope that should you attend a future event it will be a happier experience for you.

  • http://www.ukpilgrims.com Paula

    Madrid’s organisation was fine, what was not fine was some of the english people around me panicking because they could not figure out why British Standards were not applicable in Madrid!

  • Jesús

    It’s not the same to wait in Madrid around 500.000 registered pilgrims than the 2.000.000 people that finally were in Cuatro Vientos.

     

  • RC

     “I do hope this lack of pressure will galvanise the Church in Britain to put in a bid for 2015/16.”
    that would be AMAZING!

    but it won’t happen because “everyone” hates the Church here.