Carmelite Encounter Festival & World Youth Day

Monday 24th July
Day 1 of the encounter

Today the pilgrims arrived for their first encounter with our Carmelite hosts in Avila, most arriving directly from the UK. For some pilgrims, this first encounter occurred in Madrid, where they spontaneously met and subsequently travelled with their hosts! This was a wonderful ice-breaking opportunity for part of the pilgrimage to form a community spirit. Once in Avila, after all the pilgrims had moved in and gotten acquainted, it was off to mass for the group in the adjacent church. For many of us, it was our first mass in Spanish which was at times challenging but also highly adventurous. We shared our first meal and continued to grow the spirit of fraternity by taking a walking tour of Avila’s city centre, which ended with ice cream and carrying crates of water! Overall today was an excellent introduction to the pilgrimage, and everyone is looking forward to what will come next.

Tuesday 25th July
Day 2 of the encounter

Day 2 was jam-packed with activities as the pilgrims embarked on their first full day of the encounter. The morning began with our first praise session of Lectio Divina, centring on John 4:1-15 or Christ’s meeting with the Canaanite woman at the well. This was a wonderful experience for all, especially since some pilgrims had not participated in Lectio Divina before the encounter. After a filling breakfast, our group departed for St Joseph monastery to explore the concepts of interiority and self-awareness; we learned that this was the first monastery opened by St Teresa, which took place after the Protestant Reformation.

We began with a eucharistic celebration in St Joseph’s which became extremely special as Fr Jerome pointed out at the Mass’s conclusion during a spontaneous silence that St Theresa always believed a period of silence and thanksgiving should be observed at the end of every Mass. After this beautiful spark of spontaneity, we received an excellent talk by Fr Jerome on the nature of self-knowledge and the interior spiritual life, for knowing who you are in God leads you deeper in your relationship with Him.

After this wonderful dive into the individual spiritual life, we crossed the way to the La Santa Museum of the monastery, gaining insight into the rich spiritual life of the saint (called La Santa or the holy in Spain), including relics of her possessions and a model of her monastic cell. After a quick return for lunch and ‘time to ponder,’ we regrouped in the evening for a group collaboration project by creating a labyrinth. This was an excellent team building activity, and all of our small teams (organised by names of former popes) did extremely well and grew immensely together in the process.

We concluded the evening with our first evening praise led by Lucy Rauer and Madeleine Bonnet, who picked a wonderful hymn of Taizé and led the group in contemplation and discussing a quote from St Catherine of Siena on self-awareness.

This activity concluded the day’s main points, with dinner and social ice-breakers to finish an extremely strong start to this encounter experience.

To better understand how the pilgrims felt during this first day, I interviewed Johnty, who gave me wonderful insight. He found the Mass at St Joseph’s to be the absolute highlight of the day, with special attention to the aesthetic setting of the monastery coming to mind. The “ornate gold and grandeur of the place created a very inspiring environment to celebrate Mass”, Johnty comments. Moving to the encounter in its entirety, Johnty tells me how being around only Catholics is a wonderful change for the London-based pilgrim, especially being able to “draw from other people’s devotion” to aid in his spirituality. This energetic and devoted social environment partly drew Johnty to this trip in the first place, as his intentions for the trip were to grow deeper in the faith, especially in communion with others. He later told me how much he loved Avila, as this was his first time in the historic city. He finds that the best aspect of the Carmelite-led trip is the “freedom of a long leash” and lending “individual preference” to tailor the trip to the pilgrim. Overall, today was an excellent start to an incredible journey in faith, with all of us looking forward to what comes next.

Wednesday 26th July
Day 3 of the encounter

Today was an incredibly interesting start, beginning with Visio Divina, a form of competitive prayer that uses the vehicle of the divine image as inspiration. This spiritually enriching experience led us to a wonderful breakfast and our group pilgrimage to the Incarnation, or the monastery where La Santa resided.

After a moving mass held in the monastery, we visited St Teresa’s personal cell and confessional, situated near the altar. A new element for the pilgrims was seeing other pilgrimage groups visiting the same monastery as us, hearing a mass conducted in Polish and passing another group from France deeply demonstrated the true universality and connection of the church.

As a pilgrimage group from Spain moved into the church for their own eucharistic celebration, our pilgrims received an excellent talk on friendship in Christ by Fr Bartholomew and how the bonds of friendship ought to be much more profound than is perceived by the world. We learned about the different stages of friendship and how true friendship requires qualities which differentiate from mere acquaintances, including the values of attraction, common interest, sacrifice, love, and affection.

After our talk, we made our way to the museum of the monastery and explored various cells and rooms where nuns resided. We were able to view relics of the saint and other documents and artefacts that were significant to the story of the monastery.

After lunch and a much-needed rest, the pilgrims journeyed to the Museum of St Teresa, located near our own accommodation, and spent much time exploring more documents and visual demonstrations of the saint’s life and mystical experiences. I spoke with Liselot, who told me about her experience of the day, beginning with her favourite part being the visit to the church and the interactive session on love, especially how the world’s view of love differs from our Christian understanding of it.

She found the monastic church absolutely breath-taking and being able to conduct mass there a true gift. With all of the other groups about, Liselot definitely experienced the unity of the church and felt great comfort in witnessing this level of connection with other pilgrims. Truly the whole world was represented. The talk by Fr Bartholomew was especially insightful, especially his allegory of the types of friends as parts of a tree: the leaves, branches, and roots. It made her ponder what type of friend she is to others, especially here in Avila. For Liselot, this trip is especially profound as it is her first time in Spain and being away from home in England. Despite this change, she told me how much she loves Avila being “very quaint and historically significant”, which differs from England and the “seemingly timeless” feel of the place. This pilgrim specifically came on this trip to deepen her faith and spend true quality time with God, to broaden the “encounter with God and be an active listener to His wishes” This was what prompted her to take a courageous chance by coming on pilgrimage abroad for two weeks. 

Overall, today was a wonderful continuation of the spiritual journey in faith for the pilgrims and religious accompaniers alike. We all look forward to what tomorrow will bring. 

Thursday 27th July
Day 4 of the encounter

This morning we began the day with Audio Divina, a form of prayer which centres on divine listening. This experience was beautifully led by Sr Vivian, who guided the pilgrims along this prayerful journey. After breakfast, the pilgrims embarked on a trip to CiTES (Universidad de la Mística) to learn more about the spirituality of St Teresa and growth and regression in prayer, culminating with an elaborate talk by Fr Jerome. It was exciting to see the blending of Carmelite and secular spirituality, as I learned from a professor who granted us a tour.

The centre became a unified institution of prayer and study from diverse cultural backgrounds, especially in their often unique assortment of meditation rooms and chapels representing different cultures within the church. Our daily eucharistic celebration was held in one of these chapels, with Fr Jerome conducting the Mass assisted by Frs Bartholomew and Kelvin. 

After our lunch and participating in the now-familiar tradition of Siesta, the pilgrims re-emerged and sorted themselves according to one of three prayer workshops. These sessions were incredibly informative and spiritually deepening for the pilgrims, who learned more about the action of prayer and how to encounter notions of consolation, desolation, and discernment.

With our main commitments past, the pilgrims allowed themselves to be recentred in silence and adoration of our Lord during the evening prayer in the chapel led by Lewis and Madeleine. For those of us from Durham, the evening prayer stirred memories of our past retreats to Ampleforth Abbey and witnessing similar prayers held by the monks. Our group then had a wonderful dinner, and our evening activity consisted of a walk to the ‘four pillars’, an overlook spot seeing all of Avila at night. This picturesque sight was stunning, especially the dichotomy between the illuminated old walls and the mostly darkened city. Our group took full advantage of this site, and many group photos were taken and shared. At last, Fr Kelvin declared it was “way past our prayer time”, so we all returned to our accommodation. 

I interviewed Fr Jerome about his experience today and the pilgrimage. Our time in CiTES (Universidad de la Mística) was inspiring for the Carmelite friar as previous members of his order had passed through the institution, including the contemporary of Fr Jerome, adding a personal connection to the institution. For Fr Jerome, having Mass at the university and visiting the different chapels was a wonderful experience and gave the place “very good air”. This experience continued when the friar gave a reflection after our eucharistic celebration, and he mentioned how although he was delivering the talk, this internally affected him as well. When I inquired further about this internal development, Fr Jerome explained how he also speaks to himself when teaching. When preparing talks on inferiority, self-awareness, growth, and prayer, this also reflects his own spiritual journey and, through a process of self-inquiry, can reassess his own progress.

Regarding the pilgrimage, Fr Jerome told me this experience is one of the most exciting times of the year as he has a deep passion for working with young people. He wishes to see what he can bring and positively contribute to the lives of the youth; therefore, his aims for the rest of the pilgrimage are meeting more young people and “seeing what they bring to Lisbon”. Fr Jerome is here to learn as much as he can from the young pilgrims, to be “more equipped” to minister to our age group when he returns to England. Lastly, concerning our time in Avila specifically, Fr Jerome is overjoyed to be here in Spain, for it is his first time there. He has been looking forward to this trip for four years, and being able to “touch the soil where [St Teresa of Avila] lived” is indeed a moving experience. Fr Jerome and all of the pilgrims look forward to what tomorrow will bring as our time in Avila begins to come to an end.

Friday 28th July
Day 5 of the encounter

Today’s itinerary for the pilgrims included the “sabbath experience”, or “a desert experience” which consists of a time to pause, ponder  and Prayerfully process what we have experienced these days and to take the necessary rest the Lord is offering us.

The day was marked by five hours of adoration and silence. After a morning guided meditation, breakfast, and a preparatory talk/prayer session on what would take place, the pilgrims began the adoration period at noon after mass. Those who were not in the chapel were free to move about the monastery in contemplation and reflection, but silence was observed throughout this period, including lunch.

The benediction and evening prayer concluded this experience, and the pilgrims took a tour of the city walls around Avila, acting as a beautiful transition out of this period of prayer. After making it back for dinner, we visited the Four Pillars, granting a superb view of the history city at night, and many group photos were taken. After a day spent mostly in prayer, this trip was a great way to unwind and conclude the day.

Today I interviewed Madeline to gain insight into her experience during the sabbath activity and her journey during the encounter. During her hour of adoration, Madeline found great comfort and consolation in spending this time with the Lord and appreciated having lunch in silence. She felt that while socialising and small talk are excellent, they are not essential, especially during a time of spiritual reflection.

She continues saying how the visit to the Avila walls and Four Pillars trip were nice breaks after a day of silence, rekindling community in balance with contemplation. More holistically, Madeline found Avila a wonderfully spiritual city and, having never visited before, was able to freshly discover all it had to offer with our pilgrimage. Her favourite pilgrimage was our visit to the Monastery of the Annunciation which had a very moving feeling of the unified church by witnessing mass in different languages and being around other pilgrimage groups; Madeline explains how this was a “pre-taste to what World Youth Day will be like”.

 Speaking of new experiences, this also extends to being with the Carmelites. Madeline explained to me how after reading the story of a soul, seeing the roots of St Teresa’s thinking and spirituality in Avila was extremely rewarding and deepened her relationship with the order. Wholistically, our pilgrim’s spiritual aims are to strengthen her faith. Still, Madeline is also very excited to meet other young Catholics at the upcoming WYD, especially outside of Durham, where she lives. Madeline explained to me how you could easily feel alone or isolated in a small Catholic community, so this first World Youth Day experience will indeed be one to remember.

Saturday 29th July
Day 6 of the encounter

Today the pilgrims rose early to make a 6:30 departure out of Avila. Our destination is Fatima, but we stopped at Alba de Tormes before crossing into Portugal. After arriving in the neighbouring town, we took a 1.5-hour pilgrimage walk to Alba itself; this was an excellent opportunity for pilgrims to chat, contemplate, or pray a was a significant walk from Teresa’s birthplace to her death place. An opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life in its fullness having the words of the psalmist in mind: “Lord make us know the shortness of our lives that we may gain wisdom of heart”.

As it was uncertain whether anyone knew where we were going, it became evident that we relied on the Lord and His graces to guide us. Despite our fears, however, we did make it to the town in the end but with an exhausted pilgrimage group. For example, Fr Jerome was disappointed when no pilgrims would carry him to the finish line, but he made it too. In Alba, we started in the Carmelite Museum of Teresa of Jesus and saw many of her relics, including the actual location of her casket and death. However, our tour was cut short as we needed to run for mass in the neighbouring chapel. After mass, we concluded our tour and prepared for our journey to Fatima itself. This would be our last stop in Spain.

Having crossed the border into Portugal, we stopped in Castelo Branco so our driver, Jesus, could take his Siesta. We managed to get a wonderful view of the town from the battlements of an old castle, but many of us found the heat to be intense, so finding bereavement from this weather became the priority. Our group split into smaller sections and had time to ourselves for the hour stop until Fr Kelvin began calling for everyone to meet at the coach. As the pilgrims began to return, one thing did not sit right with the Carmelite guide, where are all the pilgrims from Durham? As he frantically communicated on our WhatsApp group, he learned that the group of eight had managed to locate a four-star hotel (and its bar) and, in the space of 15 minutes, consumed an entire bottle of wine, six sandwiches, and a few beers. Fr Kelvin and the rest of the pilgrimage were naturally unaware of this last-minute getaway, but as they saw the Durham group trickle out of their new-found oasis, understood why such a university has a reputation. Many laughs and jokes were exchanged as the coach pulled away, and we settled in for our drive to Fatima. When we finally made it to our new accommodation, the pilgrims had dinner and compline in the chapel and a quiet night. We look forward to what our first day in Fatima will bring!

I interviewed Josh to learn about his experience during today’s journey and the pilgrimage in its entirety. Seeing the relics of St Teresa in Alba was certainly his highlight; having only limited knowledge of the saint and St John of the Cross, seeing her relics and all our pilgrimage sites in Avila was a journey of self-discovery for Josh. Having never visited Spain, Josh noticed the apparent difference between how the faith was lived compared to England. He found that being a Catholic in Spain was more culturally normative, with increased pilgrimages and expressions of faith solidifying this observation. Having only spent one night in Fatima, and Portugal for that matter, I asked Josh his thoughts on this pilgrimage site. He explained how he loves Fatima already as the whole place feels extremely “spiritually connected”, especially with the procession of Our Lady as we witnessed last night.

Seeing all of these pilgrims here demonstrates the diversity and unity of the Church, and he is very much looking forward to our procession participation tonight. I asked Josh about any periods of spiritual challenge or stagnation during the encounter, and he explained how contemplative prayer is difficult for him, this culminating during our Sabbath Experience on Friday. Despite this, all of the talks and workshops on spiritual life seem to help immensely and offset and challenge. Turning to the structure of the pilgrimage and spending time with the Carmelites, Josh explained how he likes how relaxed everything feels, “like we’re tourists and on a retreat simultaneously” this is a wonderful balance. The Carmelites being rooted in England is of great comfort to Josh, who hopes to take what he has learned during this encounter back with him to foster the Carmelite presence in English locations at Kent and Oxford, hoping to grow devotions to our own pilgrimage sites in the UK. Our time in Fatima is the highlight for Josh, who has a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima; I hope our time here will be spiritually uplifting for all of us.

Wednesday 2nd August

With the pilgrims living across Lisbon in different accommodations meeting for group activities becomes challenging. For this reason, please note that since my group did not attend all the events at WYD, I cannot comment on these activities. Despite this however, many of us would still make an effort to attend conferences and events together. One of these was with Bishop Robert Barren, a prominent American apologist and philosopher whom many of our pilgrims take a liking to. While the talk itself was wonderful travelling around Lisbon and getting to the location of where Barren was speaking, at the university of Lisbon, was challenging itself.     Unlike in Avila or Fatima, we had to battle crowds to use the metro and wait in long queues to gain entry, thankfully all of us got a place and had a wonderful time hearing Barren speak. After the address we made our way to one of the group accommodations for some pizza and socialising. Unbeknown to him, Grant received the first of many birthday celebrations there as his 22nd would not go unnoticed by the pilgrims! My birthday gave a wonderful excuse to socialise further and remain together despite our separate living conditions sometimes encouraging the opposite. We made our way to a Ceilidh held by the Scottish delegation where I had another surprise opportunity for birthday recognition! Seeing many of the pilgrims, joined by Fr Kelvin and Bartholomew, was truly enjoyable to witness and partake in. With none of the pilgrims being from Scotland, joining in with much enthusiasm and vigour was all the more entertaining. 

Thursday 3rd August

The big event today was the arrival and opening address from Pope Francis, however with this not beginning until the afternoon many of the pilgrims took to different activities in the morning. For example, some pilgrims had a coffee and toured the cathedral while others the castle giving a spectacular view of Lisbon. All of us met at the place of the address, held in a massive green mall pointing to a large stage with jumbotrons and speakers surrounding the space. The mall was packed with people and pilgrims which created an unbelievably chaotic situation for everyone. Lucking we managed to secure a lucrative passage way, about one meter in width flanked by two hedges. It was here that the tiny Carmelite group from England made its home for what became a long few hours awaiting the Holy Father’s arrival. It was incredible to be amidst all the other pilgrims and Catholic youth in the mall, we had French and Spanish groups on either side. After the address in Spanish (with many of us crowding around a tiny speaker to hear the English translation) we slowly made our way out of the mall but inevitably became separated when the crowds became too intensified. It was the sheer energy of the place that made it so profound, the youth of the pope was certainly realised and experienced! After a long afternoon, the pilgrims returned to their own accommodations for dinner and some socialising. 

Friday 4th August

The main event today was the stations of the cross, however not all the pilgrims decided to join in. Alternatively, with some pilgrims (including myself) getting over illnesses a more relaxed day out was planned. Many of us in the boys accommodation made our way to the city of joy, to make use of confession and the vocation fair. Some decided to queue for St Jerome’s monastery and others the fair. I personally made my way back to the accommodation for a siesta however this became challenging. The metro system was entirely blocked in Belem station, with pilgrims travelling both directions. Trains would open their doors to a platform filled to the brim with people yet no one on the train itself would budge. A game of crush ensued where you had to make space you didn’t think was possible to get a spot. After about an hour, I returned to the apartment, marvelling at this Lisbon experience. 

Saturday 5th August

Today was the culmination of our time in Lisbon; for tonight we would take part in the all-night vigil. After meeting for a final farewell mass, we had a wonderful lunch filled with conversation and joyous laughter; especially it being Liselot’s 17th birthday! After departing lunch, we made our way to the apartment where Sr Gabby and Vivian were staying to regroup before the vigil and survive the 35+ degree weather. As we began the long and arduous journey to the place of vigil, we navigated the congested metro lines until our group dubbed “team chaos” made it to Moscavide on the coast. We then trekked up to the park where the event itself was being held but quickly realised that our spot for sleeping, A17, was completely filled with people and we were unable to find spots. The sheer amount of pilgrims present was overwhelming, supposedly over 1.5 million people were in attendance and you could see the encampment as far as the eye could see. It was during the adoration and speech given by the Holy Father that the true unity of the Church was realised. The sheer presence of global youth struck a tone of collective religious observance which was hard to ignore; the faith and hope witnessed was magical. After a short but pleasant vigil experience, we made our way to our sleeping location just outside the grounds. Some pilgrims found sleep while others took the all night vigil seriously and remained staunchly awake, overall, it was a wonderful experience. I interviewed one of the pilgrims before I went to sleep myself to gain more insight into this curious experience. 

This pilgrim felt that today was very special indeed, the combination of celebrating Liselot’s birthday and witnessing the vigil created a wonderful day and conclusion to our world youth day experience. Seeing the pope numerous times while in Lisbon made this all the more enjoyable. On asking about their favourite part of our time in Lisbon, I learned that us spending time and socialising as a group after the activities of the day was by far the most enjoyable. Making time to form fraternal bonds has certainly aided in fostering a collective chemistry together. Turning to the pilgrimage as a whole, this pilgrim said that their time in Avila and Fatima felt more spiritually centred, experiencing almost uninterrupted periods of prayerful consolation. This person felt that it was harder to maintain this sense of connection when our group was moved to different accommodations and took to different schedules. As to why this pilgrim chose to attend WYD, the emphasis on Catholic youth and meeting other young people was certainly high on their list; especially when the Catholic community in their English town is limited. Additionally, visiting Fatima has always been a dream and being able to experience the city as a pilgrim was a truly life-changing experience. Overall spending time with the Carmelites and visiting three different cities was mostly a positive experience both spiritually and socially. 

Sunday 6th August

With the break of dawn, pilgrims discovered two things: ants in their food and the realisation that this morning was the final moment of WYD Lisbon and our Carmelite encounter. After a number of goodbyes already, as some pilgrims needed to leave the night prior, our group made its way to a viewing spot to take part in the Papal Mass. While it was lovely as always to partake is such a mass, with the Holy Father presiding no less, the sheer mass of people constantly moving and shuffling about made participation challenging at times. Our group became split and I even had to leave the mass slightly early to make my way to my new accommodation, battling about half a million people who had the same idea. From what I’ve been told, those who stayed until the end returned to Sr Gabby and Vivian’s to collect baggage and say final goodbyes. The time had finally arrived, our pilgrimage had come to an end. As each of us departed for the airport or new accommodations we continued to inform the group of our progress on WhatsApp. I conduced my final interview also during the Vigil, where Wiktoria was kind enough to speak to me about her experience during the encounter. 

To sum up her time in Lisbon, the vigil was certainly the highlight of Wiktoria’s experience. Specifically, she explained to me how the vigil felt more traditional than the way of the cross or numerous Catechesis activities, something she especially appreciated. Continuing, she explained how Pope Francis’s speech certainly spoke to her especially the theme of ‘rising up’ and being the joy in the lives of others, yet this joy is not only when we feel like it, for while we can get tired this is ultimately a lazy action. Regarding our time in Lisbon, Wiktoria enjoyed having mass every day very much, especially when we could do so together. While it was nice to see many young and enthusiastic Catholics, the often continuous queuing for activities and travel across Lisbon was nothing short of horrendous. After inquiring more about the difference between seeing Catholics here compared to back in the UK, this Wiktoria explained how she is often forced to be more reserved about her faith, especially when some of her close friends are Atheists. Usually, she avoids the topic of religion as those with other beliefs will question the Church or use the presence of a Christian to bring up their own grievances, this is something that wears on Wiktoria. Interestingly, Wiktoria tells me how the Christian Union at her university often “put on this act of piety” which can be hard to deal with sometimes; this festival “feels more human” she says, “people are relaxed about drinking or smoking”. This combination of openness about the faith and the way it should be practiced was a breath of fresh air. Regarding spiritual growth, Wiktoria felt much process in Avila, where staying in adoration for more than ten minutes was usually quite hard. She felt this contemplation was considerably challenging in Lisbon which felt very fast-pace and hard to have time for reflection. This was Wiktoria’s first trip with the Carmelites, and she was laughing as she told me that her fist impressions were that the friars would be “super boring and hard to talk to” but was pleasantly surprised and found the talks and teaching sessions extremely fruitful. Wiktoria certainly has more motivation to pray and perseverance in defending her faith, two aspects from the pilgrimage which will definitely remain with her when returning to the UK.  

As this is the final report I will be composing, I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Fr Kelvin, my editor, and Fr Jerome and Bartholomew for all of their continued work to facilitate such an outstanding wonderful encounter and spiritual pilgrimage. I also wish to thank Sr Gabby and Vivian, and soon to be Sr Kate for their assistance and guidance during the encounter. I wish to thank all of my interviewees for putting up with my questions and reporting and for all of the pilgrims for creating a very fraternal environment ripe for spiritual growth. This has been an encounter with God, each other, and ourselves; I pray that each one of us has leaned much in this relational areas and that we will all take aspects of this experience home with us. I look forward to seeing all of you in future retreats in the UK.