In this second installment of my interview with one of our newly ordained priests, Fr. Austin Litke, O.P., I asked him questions concerning how his Dominican vocation had a positive effect on his pilgrimage to Madrid for World Youth Day. As this was his first experience of a World Youth Day, I asked him for his impressions of the overall experience.
The first thing that struck me was just the size of the thing. Different reports said that there were anything between 1.5 to 2 million people that came to Madrid for World Youth Day. We had the opening Mass with the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid in one of the big squares in Madrid and every square foot of the place for a mile was filled. Throughout the city, wherever you turned, you saw pilgrims with the bright colored backpacks that we were given to wear. The most dramatic event, though, was the vigil preparing for the Mass of World Youth Day, from Saturday night to Sunday morning. On the big TV screens they had helicopter shots of the field and the size of the crowd was just massive. So, I would say the scale of the thing was one of the more impressive features of the event. This is really significant because there is no other institution in the world that can draw those numbers. Only the Catholic Church can bring that many people together in that way. The scale of World Youth Day really showed us the universality and the epic nature of the Church in the world.
The second striking feature was that even with the huge number of people it was an incredibly prayerful environment at times. At the night of the vigil, for instance, after most of us had been standing out in Spanish heat with no shade for 8 hours in an airfield they started the Vigil. This was a Liturgy of the Word which then moved into Eucharistic Adoration. All those hot and tired people were quiet for 20 minutes or so. Many people were kneeling on dusty ground in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The fact that so many people were united by anything is quite but quite significant if not miraculous. And then to have a real prayerful atmosphere in that circumstance was really a grace filled experience. It was an experience of adoration that most Catholics have not had outside that circumstance, I would think.
Moving on to a discussion about the Dominican involvement in World Youth Day, Fr. Austin had this to say:
As an Order, we put together events basically every night during the week of World Youth Day. One night there was a sort of panel discussion of certain issues at a parish. Another night there was a sung rosary and vespers for the feast of St. Hyacinth. A different evening there was a kind of party for all Dominican youth, because in other places in the world there are a variety of Dominican youth movements that are run by the friars and the sisters. Another night we had an event at the Monasterio Real, where Dominican nuns have been since the beginning of the Order. That was especially interesting because at that monastery they have the baptismal font in which St. Dominic was baptized. That evening they had a service where people renewed their baptismal promises. Another night there was a Mass for Dominicans and Dominican youth. However, my group, just because of other commitments we had made, only we went to the sung Rosary and vespers service, which was beautiful. It was run predominantly by friars from the Province of Toulouse and was hosted by the Spanish friars at the parish they run. However, there were friars from all over: you had friars from Poland, a number of us from America, friars from both of the French provinces, from the Czech Republic, from Australia and England. There were also a number of sisters from different congregations present as well as a lot of pilgrims. What I think was very interesting, particularly for the students our group, was that because I was traveling with some Dominican sisters any time we would be walking around and see a Dominican, we would always stop and start talking to them. I think the students were really impressed by the fact that these people, whom we had never met before, were instantly connected to us and we had a whole host of things to begin talking about. That is an experience that the students don’t have in high school. So I think they were really impressed that in religious life, you have this real fraternity that’s established without having any sort of personal connections to begin with other than the fact that you are part of the same religious family. And, so I think that was interesting to the students.
Also, we had the chance as a group to visit a couple of cloistered Dominican monasteries, one in Fatima and one in Madrid. Again I think most Catholics, even people who are very devout, have very little experience of contemplative religious life. So the high school girls in my group were really interested and fascinated by the nuns, and the nuns were totally excited and edified to see a bunch of high school girls who were excited to be in a monastery. We always teased them that we were going to leave one of the girls behind every place we went. So we were able, as religious, to share something of our religious life with the students. I think it did mark the pilgrimage because they got to see that its not jut these particular sisters and this particular priest that live this way, but that there is something universal that they are a part of.
I then asked Fr. Austin to comment on what it was like traveling with Dominican sisters. He had this to say:
I thought it very good, but you would have to ask the sisters what they thought about traveling with me. Like I said before, the students found it very interesting because they interact with the sisters often since they are their teachers, but they don’t interact much with Dominican friars. I think that they found it very enjoyable to see, day in and day out, how the sisters and I interact with each other. The three of us would, every day, take time to say office together, to pray together, and to talk about what could we do for the students, particularly spiritually, to discuss how to make this a real pilgrimage. It often centered around having little talks and times of praying the rosary, or praying the office together and such. So I think for the students particularly it was a nice for them to kind of be around, say, a fuller vision of what religious life looks like, not just the sisters whom they see in school. And then for me personally, it was a great joy to be with the sisters, who are very zealous and a great witness to religious consecration. When you work in the apostolate with other religious there can be a real collegiality and fraternity out of which the mission is fed. I think we experience that in our time of pilgrimage.
To end this interview, I thought it would be nice to see the other side of things. So I asked the Dominican sisters with whom Fr. Austin traveled if they had any comments on what it was like to have Fr. Austin with them. They responded with the following:
“Having a priest with us, but particularly having a Dominican priest, completed our pilgrim group. He was always ready with timely preaching that helped the group to reflect on the deeper meaning of the World Youth Day pilgrimage. As we got closer to the final days with the Holy Father, there was a real sense of the fullness of the Church being represented in our little group, with laity, consecrated religious, and a priest gathered around the Vicar of Christ. Although the girls are familiar with the Dominican sisters, they do not often have contact with young Dominican priests, and they really enjoyed getting to know Father Austin—to see his good sense of humor and the interest he took in their lives, but also to take the opportunity to ask him questions one-on-one about living their faith.”