By Jen DeCoster
“Can you dream?” Pope Francis asked the 2.5 million young people present at the Welcoming Ceremony in Blonia that began World Youth Day. “When the heart is open, it can dream. Then there is a place for mercy.”
World Youth Day (WYD) is a worldwide encounter with the Pope. WYD was instituted by Pope John Paul II and the first WYD was held in Rome in 1986. Since then, there have been 12 international World Youth Day celebrations. The most recent World Youth Day took place in Krakow, Poland on July 25-July 31. “World Youth Day is like a giant party with the Pope; where everyone is on fire for Christ,” said Sarah Aberer from St. James in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“Imagine sitting in the middle of 2.5 million people and waiting for Pope Francis to arrive while the excitement continues to build. The excitement for an address that was about 15-20 minutes long and yet the statements presented by Pope Francis would last longer than anyone expected! The experience of sitting in a field with all the other pilgrims but being focused on the words of Pope Francis being translated over the radio so that all could hear and understand added to this excitement,” said Michael Nations, Director of the Diocesan Youth Office.
50 teens and adults travelled on a pilgrimage from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to Krakow, Poland. “This World Youth Day was special in that we were in such an amazing country! Poland was not only beautiful, but it was so Catholic! Catholic Basilicas were everywhere. On many buildings they had pictures of Our Lady, or plaques dedicating their restaurant or business to a particular Saint. You could feel God’s presence everywhere you went,” said Grace Aberer from St. James in St. Joseph.
The theme of the 31st World Youth Day was mercy from the Scripture passage, Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.” During the Stations of the Cross on Friday night, Pope Francis instructed the young people “the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service. Unless those who call themselves Christians live to serve, their lives serve no good purpose.”
Carolyn Scheuler from St. Gabriel Parish said, “This was my first World Youth Day. What stuck out to me the most was the pure, visible fact that our church is so universal. It was beyond incredible to see so many young people gathered for this one, uniting event. There are crowds and crowds of teenagers and young adults gathering in worship, or simply to learn more about our church, their faith, and how it can become a bigger part of their lives. I think the best part for me was having the chance to meet people from all over the world who share the same ideas and beliefs as me.”
“WYD is intense, grueling in many aspects. There are extreme crowds, yet joyful people from all nations, explosive positive energy, daring and blissful pilgrims willing to take whatever suffering that might come their way all in hopes that God’s grace and mercy will explode upon them and those they are there to pray for,” said Diane Pickert from St. Gabriel Parish.
In the days prior to the beginning of World Youth Day, the group visited several holy sites, the Black Madonna Icon and Shrine in Czestochowa, the birthplace of St. John Paul II in Wadowice, the Auschwitz concentration camp, and Mass in the Divine Mercy Basilica with Cardinal Sean O’Malley were some of the major highlights from the trip.
Anna Komaromi from St. Andrew the Apostle Parish said, “Seeing the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa was beautiful, and I was extremely impressed by how the Polish people love and honor our Lady!”
Angela Rodriguez from St. Gabriel Parish said, “Auschwitz-Birkenau walking tours were by far the most moving and overwhelming sight of my experience. Although hundreds of people walked through the camps at a time, the loudest sound you could hear was the gravel under people’s feet and the prayers at Cell Block 17 (St. Maximilian Kolbe’s starvation chamber). The respect given to the men, women and children who suffered unimaginable deaths was so beautiful and moving to me.”
The mornings of World Youth Day were spent in Catechetical sessions. The day began with Praise and Worship. Topics varied by day, but each session included a main speaker, a married couple’s testimony, a talk from a Cardinal that included time for Question and Answer, three testimonies of conversion or callings from past World Youth Days and finally Mass with the Cardinal who had given the talk. “There was a Cardinal from the Philippines who talked about how our society is driven on success. He also reminded us that we need help; we have a need to belong. We just need to be reminded that we are God’s,” said Vicky Hadel from Holy Family Parish.
Father Steve Hansen from Coronation of Our Lady Parish said what was most impressive about the Catechetical session was that there were “different English speaking people with a consistent message with all the other catechesis in other languages.”
“There were a couple of testimonies that really stuck out to me during Catechesis from young people who were survivors from Syria as well as a youth group who were involved in an ISIS shooting in Munich on their way to WYD,” said Pickert.
Throughout the trip there is a tradition of bringing small items to trade with pilgrims from other countries. Generally, these items represent the person’s parish, diocese, local community, state or country. Hadel said, “One trade was with a guy from the Netherlands. He had a clog shoe key chain. Though my most favorite thing was only traded with a high five. I got this little coin purse from a girl in the Philippines.”
The final full day of the Pilgrimage was spent travelling to the location of the evening vigil with Pope Francis. “The most memorable, physically draining and actually incredible part of the whole experience was when we had to walk about 8 miles to the site of the overnight vigil and back. It was incredibly difficult, but amazing. We had to walk on the hard sidewalk or grass carrying heavy backpacks in the hot sun. It took us about 6 hours to walk. But at one point a girl who was in our group said to me ‘at least we aren’t carrying a cross.’ It was in that moment that we decided that this was part of the pilgrimage and that we should unite this suffering to Christ. All of a sudden our struggles couldn’t have been enough! We were looking for things we could carry for other people, to take on more struggles for other people,” said Grace Aberer.
“I lost our group on the way back from the vigil,” said Pickert, “I can’t say I was alone because I was surrounded by thousands of pilgrims, but most spoke a language that I did not. I was exhausted, hot and in pain from walking so much, but I knew the only way to the hostel was to walk. During the 6 hour walk so much went through my head, but the thing that sticks out the most is that I am never alone in my faith journey. There will be millions of people right along-side me striving for the same goal to get to Heaven. As long as my focus is on the cross, I will never be lost; I will eventually make my way home to Heaven.”
Jake Scheuler of St. Gabriel Parish said, “From what Pope Francis said I took his words about not being a ‘couch potato’ to mean we as the youth need to be more active in our communities.”
“By following Jesus along the Way of the Cross, we have once again realized the importance of imitating him through the fourteen works of mercy. These help us to be open to God’s mercy, to implore the grace to appreciate that without mercy we can do nothing; without mercy, neither I nor you nor any of us can do a thing,” said Pope Francis. Pope Francis continued, “humanity today needs men and women, especially young people like yourselves who do not wish to live their lives halfway, young people ready to spend their lives freely in service to those of their brothers and sisters who are the poorest and most vulnerable, in imitation of Christ who gave himself completely for our salvation.”
“As we concluded he left us with one last parting thought, how do you plan to go home tonight and after WYD are you going to remain bored or are you going to make the change? We were sent out to ponder what and how exactly we were going to embrace and encounter God in the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned,” said Nations.