God Was Laughing: A Pilgrim’s Journey to World Youth Day 2011

In late September 2009, I was still actively discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood, in early formation with the Congregation of Holy Cross, and defending the faith on what seemed like a nightly basis. The adversary was none other than my best friend, who happened to be a self-described “agnostic Jew,” who did not believe in the Catholic Church and who continually questioned my faith. And the biggest issue debated was the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage. “How do you know? How do you really know God exists?” was always the question when the conversation reached a stalemate. “Because I have a gift of faith from God, which allows me to believe without needing proof,” was always my simple response. Fast-forward through fourteen months, countless conversations over the validity of scripture, tradition, and more often the catechism to December 2010 and now sit the same two students debating once again, the gift of faith – and possibly even conversion. “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ” was the line I used, quoting of course Blessed Pope John Paul the Great in his address to the young people of the world at the very first World Youth Day event in Rome.

Damian in St. Peter's Square, Rome, during World Youth Day (2011)

Then it hit me, finally a way to show faith: a way to make faith tangible to a skeptic, and possibly find a vocation along the way. “Do you want to go to World Youth Day in Madrid?” Before I finished the question it was clear we were going to World Youth Day and the planning started immediately.

Being quite active at the Newman Catholic Student Center at The George Washington University, I posed the question to our Chaplain about the Newman Center possibly helping our efforts to get to Madrid with a monetary donation. To our surprise, he proposed a different idea: if we led a trip for the Newman Center and opened the pilgrimage up to other students at GW, the Newman Center would pay for half of every pilgrim’s total cost. Gladly accepting, we kicked our preparations into high speed for a group of eleven students and three adults.

As our preparations were drawing to a close, fundraising had begun, flights were booked and hotel reservations made. This was also the election time for GW’s Allied in Pride, its LGBT Student Organization that advocated for same-sex marriage equality among other LGBT issues. Having already served on the executive board for Allied, Blake placed his bid to become the organization’s president, and I its vice-president. After much scrutiny from the LGBT students and their concern that my views of faith and marriage equality didn’t line up with what they wanted in a student leader, it turned out that Blake was elected president, while I was not elected to the board.

As it turned out the students were not the only ones concerned with my views of faith and marriage equality. The following morning after the election results were made public, both Blake and I received a message from the Newman Center Chaplain asking us to arrange an urgent meeting with him and the other World Youth Day planning committee members.

Concerned with the fact that “a personal struggle of homosexual tendencies has now become a public conflict of interest” would jeopardize the authentic Catholic experience of the pilgrimage, we were given the choice of “choosing a life in the Church and in Jesus Christ or a life lived in the flesh and lustful desire.” At stake was the World Youth Day trip that we had spent so much time and energy planning, or our dignity as two out young men who vowed to be true to ourselves. And so the decision was made to sacrifice the trip with the Newman Center and instead try to raise the rest of the money needed and salvage our chances of getting to Madrid.

Blake in St. Peter's Square, Rome during World Youth Day (2011)

We approached the newly named interim-director of the GW LGBT Resource Center, Timothy Kane, for guidance and any advice in what could be done. First, there was the option to find legal council, go the press and reveal the injustice but both Blake and I felt as though that would be inappropriate. We simply wanted to make a pilgrimage of faith, and wanted no political strings attached. Sitting on the table of the Resource Center coffee table was a pamphlet for the upcoming 2011 Dignity/USA’s national convention that was to be held here in Washington, D.C. with the words “for LGBT Catholics” on the front. When I asked Timothy what Dignity/USA was, hope was rekindled. Immediately Timothy started work in making contact with Dignity/Washington Board members, Tom Bower and Allen Rose, to arrange a time to meet with the Dignity/Washington Board of Directors to see if they would be able to help.

Both Tom and Allen became integral partners on behalf of the Dignity/ Washington community in helping us reach Madrid for World Youth Day. After making an appeal to the congregation after Masses, the Dignity/Washington community made a free-will donation of $2,075.00 towards our trip – and once again God was laughing at us for ever doubting in Him. But the community did not stop at a monetary donation; it offered prayers and other resources such as legal council and/or media outlets should we decide to pursue either of those options. Such was the compassion given to us from the Dignity/Washington community, a community that both Blake and I are now a part of. It seemed that God himself had laid the path to bring us to this community with the full knowledge of what was going to happen, and once again, He was laughing.

With the blessing and prayers from the Dignity/Washington community we started our pilgrimage in Rome where we were able to offer prayers for our new friends in a total of nine churches, including Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Maria Maggiore and the Church of the Holy Name of Mary. We pushed on to Paris where we got our first taste of World Youth Day when we encountered a Brazilian group at the Basilica of Sacré Coeur singing and dancing to the simple song “Jesus Christo, Alleluia.” Notre Dame, the Church of Saint Étienne, and the Church of Saint Augustine were other notable stops before we pressed onward to Lourdes.

However, our journey to Madrid was not going to be easy, as that leg of our trip got under way. The train company that had booked our tickets for the pilgrimage booked the tickets from Lourdes to Madrid for a day in mid-September. We made the decision to travel to Lourdes and deal with the ticket issue there. We arrived late at night to a town where the only hotel accommodations available were in a very small, run-down inn where none of the staff spoke English. My one-year study of French was enough to book us one room for the night so we at least had a place to sleep. On a spur-of-the-moment decision we walked down to the Grotto. We waited in the line to walk past the Tabernacle and altar and prayed for a way out of Lourdes. We bottled our Holy Water and returned back to the hotel.

The following day was spent mostly on the phone with the train company – and after finally getting the agents to acknowledge that it was their mistake, the best solution they could give was a refund for the tickets. When we asked to book new tickets for the correct day, they told us that every train was full, with absolutely no tickets available. It was time to get creative and the afternoon was spent looking for groups carrying American flags to see if there was any extra room on their bus. We met with three groups from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Texas and after high hopes were ultimately turned away due to “liability issues.”

The morning came and we decided to leave Lourdes headed for Irun, Spain, and hoped that we could find a way onto a train to Madrid once we reached the border. As we arrived in Irun, it was clear that all trains were going to be booked by the number of pilgrims that were waiting on the platforms. As we approached the ticket window, we were greeted with a sign that read “closed for siesta.” The only other option was to make our way to the bus window. We found ourselves behind a large group of pilgrims also seeking a way to Madrid. After watching them be turned away, we found ourselves once again with little hope. Direct routes to Madrid were booked and once again the doubt set in. Just then, the woman at the ticket counter asked us how many pilgrims were in our party because there were just two tickets left to get to Madrid with a layover in Bilbao. Three trains and two buses later, we were in Madrid and God was laughing.

Host Family in Spain

Blake and Damien with their host family in Spain.

Upon arriving to Madrid we were met with immediate graces. A host couple with seven children had an elaborate dinner set and waiting us. Santiago and Ana, with their children Ana, Marta, Teresa, Jaime, Javier, Ines, and Juan became our family. Now we had seven little brothers and sisters who started treating us rather quickly as if we were their big brothers. The little ones hugged, pinched, bit, and punched us always with a smile on their face and a laugh at the “ows!” we let out.

When we reached downtown Madrid, we saw so much that we had ever seen before. We witnessed thousands of people waving flags, carrying crucifixes, praying on street corners, singing and dancing in church yards and praying rosaries in multiple languages. Finally, after so much stress and worry, we were in Madrid and experiencing faith!

As the Holy Father drove by the screaming crowds, we were within arms’ reach to the Papamobile and I thought to myself, “because I have the gift of faith from God which allows me to believe without needing proof.” It was fitting that the 2011 Madrid World Youth Day was the World Youth Day that we attended because the theme for the entire celebration was taken from scripture: “Rooted and Built Up in Jesus Christ. Firm in the Faith.” The message of being firm in the faith and shepherds of faith in the sense of being witnesses for others was echoed in the Holy Father’s homily at his closing Mass. Yet both of us knew that we were leaving Madrid with questions answered and new questions to ask.

WYD Participants (and part of the cleaning crew!) enter Cuatro Vientros Aerodome in Madrid, site of the closing Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.

For myself, my vocation to the married and family life was affirmed by the joy I felt of being part of such an amazing family and seeing the happiness both Santiago and Ana receive from their children. I know that God will always provide when you seek Him out – even if the path is unclear to you at times. I know that Divine Providence led me to the Dignity/Washington community where I no longer have to choose between my faith and my sexual orientation.

As for Blake, for every question that was answered three more have come up. A deeper sense of spirituality and acceptance of the idea that faith could be a gift have since calmed his need for definitive proof of God’s existence while he still discerns his own beliefs regarding faith.

Since arriving back to the GW campus the World Youth Day spirit has not left us – I have become the student coordinator for the GW Office of Religious Life and am in the process of forming a Dignity/George Washington University chapter to provide LGBT Catholics on campus the chance to practice their faith without fear of judgment. In addition, I have since become more involved in Dignity/Washington by getting involved in the Liturgies as an acolyte.

We are eternally grateful for all of the members of the Dignity/Washington community and their generosity and hospitality. Where the path may lead, so long as we follow the Holy Spirit, we will continue to be rooted and built up in Jesus Christ. Firm in the faith. To God be the Glory.

by Damian Legacy with Blake Bergen
Dignity/Washington members and students at The George Washington University

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