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WYD 2013: The terrifying calm on Copacabana Beach

Miguel Cullen writes about his Saturday night spent on Copacabana Beach.

By on Sunday, 28 July 2013

A pilgrim prays in the early morning after the vigil (AP)

A pilgrim prays in the early morning after the vigil (AP)

The purple light from the Papal stage, centre-notched with a gargantuan glowing cross, lights up the swelling froth of the water ten metres away. Pope Francis is delivering his address on Saturday evening. Speaking in porteño Spanish, he talks about the Parable of the Sowers, and how when we face the problems of faith, we invent the myth of having stony, thorny ground, as a reason why the seed of God hadn’t grown in us. Pope Francis, with the virtuoso rhetoric that is his style, then asked each of us to find a small morsel of fertile ground, in the field – a metaphor we, packed like sardines in a tin on the Campus Fidei, could well appreciate.

Later, the crowd laid down and slept. There were so many in the sand. People sleeping with yellow blankets with rose patterns, leopard print blankets, sleeping bags, a Paraguayan flag roped to railings, tents, families embracing for warmth on inflatable mattresses, people lying on folded-out cardboard boxes, nuns wearing Spiderman blankets, drums playing in the background, singing. The figures sleeping in the sand were uncountable, they carried on for three and a half kilometres.

Following the drum noises, I discover a Chilean group from the Camino Neocatecumenal, who, to a backing of drums and guitar, are dancing a samba-style on the Avenida Atlantica, a dance particular to the Camino – a dance which has Jewish roots. Israel, a young pilgrim from Santiago, teaches me, sipping a caipirinha. Israel’s brother, Felipe, aged 22, drinks a beer and tells me he saw snow for the first time on this pilgrimage – when he passed through Mendoza, Argentina.

I pick my way through the crowd, and bump into a group of fellow Argentines: Elisabeth and Laura, who are from the Colegio Máximo and the cathedral of San Miguel in Buenos Aires – where Pope Francis was a rector in the 1980s. They have come in a group of 250.

It’s getting cold around 4.30 am, and a local hawker selling gloves is darting between the tightly packed sleepers. The Southern Cross has shifted in the sky, snores drone intermittently, but the main protagonist is the deep, terrifyingly soft sense of calm. It left a deep, deep memory.

The sky is now a faint pink. I am sharing a cigarette break with some fellows from Quito, when we both see it. Dawn has broken. The Vigil is drawing to a close. I walk on to Avenida Nossa Senhora De Copacabana. Here, there are similar prostrate figures, but skinny, wretched, with filthy rags for blankets, and perhaps with no seed, or flower, growing on their patch of cement – they are different pilgrims.

  • Jackie Parkes

    Beautifully written…thankyou!

  • Sister Polly, op

    Thank you for sharing your reflection…powerful.

  • 1Maccabeus

    I’m intrigued: why was the ‘sense of calm’ experienced as ‘terrifyingly soft’?

  • Julian Lord

    Go on a foot pilgrimage of at least four weeks, and you’ll understand — provided you’re not distracted by the social life of some of the more “group-hug pilgrims”.

  • Agniezca

    This article doesn`t speak very much to me, I afraid. Lots of words, little contents of depth and analysis.
    Mainly emotional, that is all right.

  • 1Maccabeus

    I’m probably being a bit pedantic here but ‘terrifyingly’ still seems an odd adjective to use. If the writer is referring to the pleasure of soft sand on sore feet after a long pilgrimage on foot wouldn’t ‘delightfully soft’ be more appropriate? Anyway, the Pope’s visit was a great success, that’s the main thing.

  • William Polakiewicz Sr.

    If I were young again, I would be saving up for the next world youth day. The only thing I ever did, any where close to this, was camping out on a beach in Japan for two days. We were young and adventureous. We slept on the beach and marveled at God’s creations all around us. At night after we fell asleep, millions of red crabs came out of the water, crawled over everything, including us, to get to the mountain rocks behind us. We were supprised, but laughed at what happened.

    I would love to esperience a world youth day, where I was part of group, living together with a bunch of friends and receiving blessings from God at the same time. Wow, I encourage all young people to start planning for world youth day 2016. It will be an adventure of a life time.

    Yours in Christ,


  • Julian Lord

    ‘terrifyingly’ still seems an odd adjective to use

    NOT when you’re facing the very Presence, it isn’t … (The Blessed Virgin Mary is not so stark, though)

  • Andrew Young

    Agniezca and Maccabeus, why so negative? Are you sad, lonely, attention seeking or just unfulfilled that you can’t receive the underlying sense of the article without having to be so vacuous.

  • 1Maccabeus

    Clearly I must have been born sad, lonely, attention seeking and vacuous. Thank you for demonstrating the wonderful truth of fellow Christian kindness and charity. It is an example I will long cherish though it is also an example I shall hopefully fail to emulate in my miserable and imperfect existence.

  • 1Maccabeus

    I’m not sure many people have been graced by God with his ‘very Presence’ though I can well understand that those who have – like Isaiah, for example – were shaken to the core by their experience. Clearly, in reading the above article, I have failed to appreciate the author’s rare privilege in being one of the chosen few.

  • Julian Lord

    It’s more common than you think, and the great majority of those who have been Graced in such a manner remain completely silent about it AFAIK

  • 1Maccabeus

    No offence, but if the great majority remain completely silent about it, how does anyone know they have had a graced and exceptional experience of the ‘presence’?

  • Julian Lord

    Because people do occasionally discuss these things with trusted friends ; there’s a kind of general knowledge that these things are more common than is usually realised.

    Because I once accidentally attended one afternoon of a conference on the subject, in Italy, where it became apparent that priests are inundated with such reports of divine interventions, but that people discussing them with priests (and religious) tend to otherwise avoid discussing these things in public.

  • 1Maccabeus

    Got it – many thanks for the clarification.

  • Wendyy

    What an amazing night. I was blessed enough to be there and slept under the stars with millions of youth!