Pilgrims gather outside the Cuatro Vientos air base entrance upon realizing the gates were closed early.

The bitter aftertaste of the Cuatro Vientos lockout

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  • August 31, 2011

Alan Law wanted to know why the gates were closed so early at Cuatro Vientos air base on the eve of the papal vigil at World Youth Day. So he posed this question on the wall for the official World Youth Day Facebook group, run by event organizers.

“Why were the gates closed so early? A lot of people were locked out,” wrote Law, who is a product development manager with Tour Design, a travel company that brought many Canadian pilgrims to Madrid.

He waited for a response but heard nothing. So the next day, he checked again. To his shock, he couldn’t find his comment. It had been erased.

As group leaders and pilgrims settle back home after World Youth Day, discontent at the fact that an estimated 250,000 pilgrims were locked out of Cuatro Vientos airbase for the overnight vigil and closing Mass is starting to be vocalized. Some 1.4 million pilgrims showed up for the overnight vigil and World Youth Day organizers were only equipped to handle about a million, turning away registered pilgrims from around the world.

“It is the recommendation of the Office of Catholic Youth of the archdiocese of Toronto that we do not go so far as to request refunds or do any type of formal protest just because we understand that we’re dealing with the Church here,” said Christian Elia, OCY director.

“The Church in Spain already has financial issues and, as an act of charity, we’re not going to take those actions.”

However, individual pilgrims have told Elia they will be writing letters to World Youth Day organizers in Madrid along with the cardinal’s office in Madrid.

Elia said it’s important that World Youth Day organizers rethink how they organize World Youth Day.

“A lot of people aren’t enthusiastic about going to Rio do Janeiro, Brazil, because with less than two years until the next World Youth Day, it’s hard to imagine how a less developed nation will do a better job than a more developed Western European nation,” said Elia.

But while the aftermath is starting to be felt, some organizers say it’s still to early to see the real ramifications.

Sr. Eileen McCann, co-ordinator of World Youth Day Madrid groups for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she has sent out a formal evaluation form to all group leaders and bishops. McCann said she is sure the scene at Cuatro Vientos is going to be one of the top complaints from pilgrims.

“There was absolutely no justification for the mess at Cuatro Vientos,” said McCann. “No one credentialled should have been closed out of there.”

But likely, this won’t happen again as in her experience (in the eight she’s attended), the aspect of World Youth Day that goes wrong goes quite smoothly at the next.

“In Sydney, the bishop credentials were atrocious and this year had only minor glitches.”

In any case, she is surprised by the lack of complaints she’s received so far.

“I’m guessing that the diocesan directors will start calling soon but right now, they’re probably still taking time off,” she said.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt + Light Television and CEO of World Youth Day when it was held in Toronto in 2002, said many Canadian pilgrims were left out of the final events.

“We experienced problems with pilgrim accommodations, bishops’ registrations, press credentials and numerous other matters.”

For Australian Malcolm Hart, senior youth ministry projects officer for the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life, only time will tell how the events at Cuatro Vientos will affect future participation.

“Over the coming months I will be listening to Australian pilgrimage leaders’ experiences and providing feedback to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference about how we can continue our participation in international World Youth Day gatherings,” he said.

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