In August 2011, I was able to travel to Spain for World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid. I went with a group of 100 young adults from Houston and across the U.S. to attend the first ever International FOCUS Conference.
The conference convened in a small village named Samos, Galicia in northwestern Spain at the Monastery of San Julian de Samos, a 15th century Benedictine monastery. The monastery was right along the famous Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrim path traversed for centuries. To learn more about my brief journey on the Camino, click here.
Here I met with over 140 other young adults from 12 countries from throughout Europe and Asia. We realized a beautiful conference based on love and solidarity as young people and frankly addressed the most controversial topics of our Catholic faith.
Over cups of coffee, wine and sangria, my conversations with my new friends easily reached many depths and heights. I also got to share meals with several renowned Catholic speakers. The sign of peace is still just as awkward in London and Kuala Lumpur as it is in Texas! Going deeper, my experience was strengthened by an emphasis on prayer and the Sacraments, with daily Holy Hours and Mass.
As a group, we walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago together to Santiago de Compostela. There I visited the Tomb of St. James the Apostle, where I brought dozens of petitions of benefactors, friends and loved ones from back in the States. The experience of kneeling before his tomb, be able to touch the rails, see the shimmer of the metal, was unforgettable.
From there we traveled to Avila, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and more importantly the home of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, both Doctors of the Church. We spent time adventuring the ancient medieval city, climbing the rocky walls and seeing the Spanish landscape, enjoying tapas with locals, finding unique Spanish water fountains, and seeing St. Teresa’s cell in the convent.
We visited the Carmelite Chapel where St. Teresa of Avila had her famous ecstasy, but there was a French children’s Mass being celebrated so we merely could watch from the back of the Chapel. These children sang so beautiful in French, but I had no idea what they were saying. On our way out to our buses, we encountered a MASSIVE group of Brasilians who invited us into their incredibly fun dance circle. They had drums, we had hands to clap, and they taught us their steps. We danced for half an hour then remembered we had just walked 5 miles on the Camino and all stopped very quickly.
From there we traveled by bus to Madrid, and the city was prepared for World Youth Day. Our host church was St. Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in the northern Madrid town of Mirasierra. In the church, we were assigned our host families. It felt a bit like the Price is Right… We’d be called up group by group, then a family would be called and they’d come scoop up our luggage and greet us.
The Acostas, a family of four boys and two parents, claimed us as their own. In a very nice condo, we were assigned to two bedrooms, two per room. Peter and I in one, Josue and Arturo in the other. Arturo spoke Spanish, which would prove super useful… The boys loved magic tricks and entertained us on end, just seriously blowing our minds. I legitimately have no idea how they did some of their tricks.
Each morning they’d feed us breakfast. I almost feel bad for them, “What do we feed these Americans!?” A feast adorned the table: milk, cereal, fruits, toast, breakfast cookies (you didn’t have to tell me twice), slices of ham and other meats (mmmm!!!), crackers, SO MUCH. I made myself fancy versions of Lunchables every day. They’d pack us sandwiches for the rides into Madrid, and we ate them all.
In Madrid, each day we’d take the Madrid Metro into the city center. I don’t really know how we were able to navigate the city so well, we don’t have underground trains in Houston and not all of us spoke Spanish. But thanks to a keen sense of direction (one of my most beloved gifts from God… seriously.) I was able to get around town, and even by myself a few times.