Last week, 137 young pilgrims, priests, seminarians, sisters, lay leaders from our diocese and I participated in World Youth Day in Krakow, an experience of faith and joy with young people from over 180 countries throughout the world. It was a beautiful gathering of Catholic youth and young adults sharing the joy of being disciples of Jesus, inspired to be apostles of mercy in the contemporary world.
The young people from our diocese made me very proud to be their bishop. They participated wholeheartedly in the pilgrimage experience: in prayer, great camaraderie, and zeal. I am very grateful to all the diocesan and parish leaders of the pilgrimage for their hard work and dedication to our young people.
From our arrival in Warsaw on July 22nd to our departure on August 1st, we experienced the kindness and hospitality of our Polish hosts. It was great to celebrate the 31st World Youth Day in the homeland of the founder of WYD, Pope Saint John Paul II. In many places we visited, we followed the amazing life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, the principal patron saint of WYD this year, along with Saint Faustina, the messenger of Divine Mercy. Throughout our pilgrimage, we learned about many Polish saints and blesseds, prayed at their tombs, and were inspired by their heroic Christian lives.
Our first Mass in Poland on the day we arrived was at Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church in Warsaw where Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko served. We prayed at the grave of this young priest who ministered and preached to the workers of the Solidarity labor movement and was martyred by Communist authorities in 1984. We asked Father Popieluszko, a martyr of truth and love, to intercede for us as we began our pilgrimage.
Early Saturday morning (July 23rd), we traveled from Warsaw, Poland’s political capital, to Czestochowa, Poland’s spiritual capital. We visited the Jasna Gora monastery of the Pauline monks and its Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. I felt privileged to celebrate Holy Mass in the chapel of the Black Madonna, the famous icon of Mary, the Queen of Poland. Pope Saint John Paul II was intensely devoted to the Virgin Mary and to her icon at Czestochowa. It was a great place to spend our first full day in Poland, asking Our Lady to accompany us on our pilgrim journey. Late in the afternoon, we traveled from Czestochowa to Katowice, a city in Upper Silesia in southern Poland, our base for the next two days of pilgrimage. There we visited the small wooden church of Saint Michael the Archangel, built in 1510.
On Sunday, July 24th, we visited Kalwaria and Wadowice. Kalwaria (“Calvary”) is a sanctuary in the Carpathian foothills with a beautiful Basilica, adjacent to the Franciscan monastery. There are 42 churches and chapels along six miles in the mountains recounting Our Lord’s Passion and Death. The young Karol Wojtyla, whose hometown of Wadowice is not far away, prayed and hiked often at Kalwaria. We spent a few hours at this holy site and were able to visit some of the chapels. I’d love to return some day to walk the six miles and visit all the chapels!
From Kalwaria, we went to Wadowice and celebrated an afternoon Mass in the parish church where Karol Wojtyla was baptized, received his first Holy Communion, and was confirmed. It was his family’s parish where he served Mass as he grew up. The beautiful baroque church, now a basilica, under the title of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is located in the central square of Wadowice. Our group enjoyed several hours in the church and square and also toured the museum with the apartment home of the Wojtyla family, a three-room flat in a building next to the church. In Wadowice, our youth discovered the delicious ice cream made in Poland as well as the favorite dessert of Pope John Paul II, a Polish cream cake.
In these pilgrimage spots, we met pilgrims from other countries who were also making their way to World Youth Day in Krakow. The joyful spirit of all was palpable.
On Monday (July 25th), we left Katowice to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most somber time of our pilgrimage. We walked through these two camps of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust in respectful silence. Tears filled the eyes of many as we prayed at spots throughout the camps, including at the building where Saint Maximilian Kolbe was martyred, and outside the one remaining gas chamber and crematorium. At Birkenau, we walked along the train tracks on which hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting innocent captives arrived, including Saint Edith Stein. We could only walk in silence as we contemplated the incomprehensible evil and cruelty that took place there. Our pilgrimage of faith, love, and mercy met the exact opposite at Auschwitz. It was important that we visited there to remember the Nazi terror and the over 1.1 million victims killed at Auschwitz, mostly Jews, but also Poles, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, and homosexuals. It was also important while there to pray for an end to the terrors that continue to plague our world.
From Auschwitz, we traveled to Krakow for a visit of several hours at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. It was a special grace to pray in the chapel of the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy where Saint Faustina’s relics are kept under the famous image of the merciful Jesus. There, Sister Faustina received the extraordinary grace of the revelations of Divine Mercy. After reflecting on the darkness of evil at Auschwitz, we turned to the Divine Mercy which is truly a light for the world amid the darkness. Here it was good to reflect on the truth that evil can be overcome through merciful love. In the light of Divine Mercy, we can live in hope. I thought of the words of Saint Faustina: “Mankind will not find peace until it returns with trust to God’s mercy.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley celebrated Mass for 2,000 of us, mostly U.S. pilgrims, that afternoon in the large new church next to the convent. The church resembles an arc and has a lower and upper basilica. The tabernacle in the upper church is shaped like the earth and has an image of the Divine Mercy above it with pictures of the apostles of Divine Mercy on either side, Saint Faustina and Saint John Paul II. Many of us also visited the new Saint John Paul II Sanctuary .5 kilometers away. It is a center devoted to the life and works of the great Polish Pope. The Shrine Church is decorated with beautiful mosaics and contains the cassock worn by Pope John Paul during his attempted assassination in 1981.
From Tuesday, July 26th to Sunday, July 31st, we participated in the activities of World Youth Day in Krakow. It is not possible to recount in this column all the many and varied experiences during these days. In small groups, our diocesan pilgrims visited many sites in the beautiful city of Krakow, beginning with Wawel Castle and Cathedral where we prayed at the tomb of Saint Stanislaus, a bishop and martyr of the 11th century. During these days, we walked the streets and visited dozens of beautiful historic churches, praying at tombs of saints, and joining thousands of young people in celebrations in city squares, like the beautiful main Market Square with the exquisite gothic Saint Mary’s Cathedral. On Thursday, our diocesan group celebrated Mass together in the church where Saint Stanislaus was martyred in the year 1079.
Thanks to the Knights of Columbus, U.S. pilgrims could gather for daily catechesis, Mass, and prayer at the large Tauron Arena in Krakow. Our diocesan group spent all day there on Wednesday.
The main official events of World Youth Day began with the Opening Mass at Blonia Park on Tuesday (July 26th), celebrated by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Archbishop of Krakow, who had been the personal secretary of Pope John Paul II for many years. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were welcomed by Cardinal Dziwisz. Two days later, we gathered again in Blonia Park to welcome the arrival of Pope Francis with much joy and excitement. The two-hour welcoming ceremony was a festive gathering with a procession of young people carrying flags from all their countries, along with banners of Saints of Mercy from all six continents. During the ceremony, a Liturgy of the Word, the Holy Father told the pilgrims that “a young person who is touched by Christ is capable of truly great things.” He praised the energy and enthusiasm of the youth and encouraged them to bring God’s love and mercy to the world.
On Friday, July 27th, Pope Francis and the WYD pilgrims gathered again Blonia Park for the Way of the Cross. Each Station of Jesus’ Passion was linked to a corporal or spiritual work of mercy. At the end, the Holy Father called on the young people to live the works of mercy, to serve others, and to walk the path of Jesus, the Way of the Cross, the path of personal commitment and self-sacrifice. It is “the Way,” he said, “that conquers sin, evil, and death, for it leads to the radiant light of Christ’s resurrection and opens the horizons of a new and fuller life.” It was evident that the young people at WYD believe in this message and seek to live it.
The climax of every World Youth Day is the Vigil with the Holy Father on Saturday night and the Closing Mass on Sunday morning. The youth camp out and sleep at the site (the bishops are bussed back to the hotel!) In Krakow, the Vigil and Mass were held at the “Campus Misericordiae” (“The Field of Mercy”), located about 9 kilometers from the center of Krakow, on July 30 and 31. About 1.6 million youth attended the Vigil. Three young people shared emotional testimonies. One was a young Syrian woman who shared her pain and sorrow over the destruction of her city, Aleppo. She witnessed to her faith in God amid the suffering and asked for the prayers of all. Besides the testimonies, the Vigil included choreographed performances. One that touched me especially was of Pope John Paul II forgiving his would-be assassin in his prison cell. Pope Francis gave a heartfelt homily urging the youth to offer the best of themselves and to leave a mark on the world, to practice the works of mercy, and to promote brotherhood and communion in a world beset by conflict and terrorism.
The Closing Mass was filled with joy. Pope Francis spoke of the amazing encounter in the Gospel between Jesus and Zacchaeus and how that encounter changed Zacchaeus’ life, despite the obstacles Zacchaeus had to face in order to meet Jesus. He said: “The Lord wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives and in your studies, your first weeks of work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. How greatly He desires that you bring all this to prayer!” At the end of the liturgy, Pope Francis announced that the next World Youth Day will held in Panama. Mass ended with the beautiful and uplifting music we had sung throughout World Youth Day.
World Youth Day 2016 was an amazing experience. Our young pilgrims loved it and were enlivened in their faith. Often throughout the trip and at the huge liturgies, we sang the beautiful WYD hymn. The lyrics of the refrain, which our young people also learned to sing in Polish, express the theme of WYD 2016: “Blessed are the merciful, for it is mercy that shall be shown to those who show mercy.” I pray that, as a fruit of our pilgrimage, all of us will return home to live this Beatitude of Jesus with true fervor. I pray especially that our wonderful young people will be witnesses of mercy. May God, rich in mercy, pour out the gifts of His mercy onto the Church and the world!