“It is up to us to see God in those people who are suffering,” Pope Francis declared during one of his passionate homilies during the 15th World Youth Day, held in Kraków, Poland during July 2016. “When we reach out to the persecuted, the homeless, the migrant, and the refugee, we touch the face of Jesus. In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response is the gift of oneself, even one’s life, in imitation of Christ.”
I listened to these words as if in a dream. I was not hearing them on the radio. I was not watching a television broadcast. Instead, I was standing in Kraków’s Błonia Park, with nearly a million young Catholics from around the globe. Waving flags from China and Uruguay, Sweden and Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and Iraq, filled the air.
Though I had known of World Youth Day for years and met some former attendees, it had never occurred to me to go. But three years ago, when I first learned that WYD 2016 was going to be held in Kraków, I knew I had to be there. As an American of Polish heritage who had already visited this lovely city six times, I was excited to return to the home of St. John Paul II, who founded WYD in 1984, and St. Faustina, the 20th century mystic who was inspired to paint the image that has become a universal Catholic symbol of Christ’s Divine Mercy.
Nevertheless, I was uncertain of what to expect. Unlike most pilgrims who attend this triennial mass gathering, I was traveling alone. A friend’s words kept ringing in my ears: ¨Jeannine, you’re 33. Can you really call yourself a youth?” And, indeed, I responded to the crowded trains, long food lines, and hikes to pilgrimage sites with a little more grumbling than I might have were I 17 or in the company of large, raucous groups from France or Italy (two nations whose youthful representatives seemed to be in a perpetual singing competition, with volume the main criterion for victory).
While I admittedly experienced some irritation at the pushing, yelling crowds, my overarching feeling was of joy. At the opening Mass, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of Kraków urged us to recognize the diversity of those present. “Some of you have come from countries where people have many opportunities to realize their dreams, while others are visiting from war-torn nations with limited resources,” he said. “Some of you have come from places where Christians form the majority, and others come from lands where you are a small minority and even face persecution.”
In that moment, I felt something that I had been yearning for: the solidarity of the global church. As a child growing up in Buffalo, New York, I lived and breathed religion. I prayed the rosary every day in October and May, sang in the children’s choir each Sunday, and attended Mass many mornings before school. However, when I left home to attend a liberal arts college in 2001, I encountered a plethora of worldviews that were new to me, from neopaganism to scientific materialism. When I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto in 2008, I found that my Catholic faith was not a trusty piece of furniture I could leave for years in the attic and find relatively unchanged. Instead, it was more like a delicate plant that needed just the right balance of water and sunlight to survive.
Gather us in
The impulse that led me to World Youth Day was a desire to revive that plant and see it bloom. And, as I spoke to people from around the world, I found that despite their diverse backgrounds and circumstances, they all shared this same yearning While I met many people from countries where Catholicism is a dominant religion, like Brazil and the Philippines, I also met pilgrims from places where it is not, such as Turkey and Pakistan. And then there were many people from countries that are historically Catholic but have become more secular in recent years, such as Ireland.
According to Alanna Bradley, a 17-year-old high school student I met from County Meath, the secularization of Ireland is due not to a lack of faith, but disillusionment with the church as an institution due to the child abuse scandal and the history of violent conflict. “Being Catholic in the 21st century means you need to have a thick skin, because the people who are against the church can be quite set in their ways. As a young Catholic I have to look past this and be okay with being different, putting my trust in Jesus and not worrying about what others think,” she said.
Another young pilgrim I met was Sophia Decker, a 19-year-old classics student at University of Kentucky who, like me, grew up in a very faith-oriented environment and now finds herself in a secular university. When I asked her what her Catholic identity means to her, she responded with little hesitation. “Being Catholic has to permeate every aspect of life,” she said. “We are in this world, but not of this world. We may do many of the same things that others do, but we try to live for God. I decided to come to WYD because I wanted to have the experience of being catholic with a lowercase ‘c.’ We truly are universal and can be found all around the world.”
In some ways, talking to these idealistic teenagers was like entering a time machine and seeing myself at their age, beautifully appreciative of faith but not fully aware of how hard it can be to maintain in the face of life’s challenges. Perhaps the fact that I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the optimism of the economically prosperous ’90s makes the current era, with its constant war, environmental degradation, and political demagoguery, so disheartening. While I was happy to meet these enthusiastic youth, I found it easier to relate to their teachers and mentors. On one of many crowded trains, I met a small group led by Father Robert Balek, a Slovakian Divine Word Missionary priest currently based in Tambov, Russia. Balek described his call to the priesthood—which he initially resisted and ultimately answered against his family’s wishes—and his ministry in a country where Catholicism is quite foreign to the majority.
“Because Russian Catholics are a small minority in a primarily Orthodox nation, they can sometimes feel alone,” he said. “Many young people are lost in the world because they have so many options and do not know how to choose wisely. Also, often their parents are lost because of Russia’s communist past, so youth are hanging in the air without a foundation. Most have some kind of faith in God, but they do not know how to live it. At World Youth Day they form bonds and community, and then they take that closeness home.”
Another participant I could easily relate to was my roommate for the week, Pauline Wanjau, a Kenyan educator who coordinates HIV-AIDS prevention programs for the African Jesuit AIDS Network. Like me, she came to Poland alone, but during the week before the main WYD events she participated in MAGIS, a Jesuit spiritual retreat. She candidly told me that for her, faith is not an easy journey, but there is joy in the struggle.
“I am inspired by the stories of saints, such as Ignatius of Loyola, who questioned his faith and struggled to find God in his life. Mother Teresa is another favorite—she even lost her faith for a while, and now she is a saint. God knows that we are human, but we have to keep striving at every moment,” she said told me. “I was inspired to come to WYD to learn from others who work with youth. I also wanted to share the African story, to make sure that people know there is a lot more to Africa than war, hunger and other negative realities reported by the news.¨
World Youth Day was also a powerful experience for the people of the host country. Hundreds of Polish youth served as volunteers, and thousands participated as pilgrims. While some locals fled Kraków for the week, many stayed and accommodated pilgrims in their homes. Pauline and I were lucky to be hosted by Teresa, a 51-year-old widow who informed us that she had offered to host pilgrims half a year in advance. Throughout the week she went above and beyond what had been asked of her, treating us to delectable naleśniki (Polish crepes) and homemade wine and later taking a painting of St. John Paul II down from her wall and offering it to me.
Another older millennial I met was Michał Lewandowski, a journalist, editor and photographer at Deon.pl, the most widely-viewed Christian website in Poland. He stated that while for some Polish Pope Francis stands in the long shadow of St. John Paul II, most respect him, and some have returned to the Church because due to his influence. “Francis is the best example of how to respond to the problems in the world—he speaks of migration, climate, and war. In Laudato Si’ he gives concrete responses on how to act and urges us to form a new culture,” Michał said. “We cannot build barriers between people; instead, we need to build bridges. I truly believe we can look at him and learn a lot from him.”
Blessed are the merciful
Throughout the week, the theme we heard again and again was that of mercy. We heard this in the event’s theme song, “Błogosławieni Miłoserni,” whose refrain simply stated, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” We heard it during each of Pope Francis’ homilies and addresses to the participants. “World Youth Day will begin when you return to your homes and communities,” Pope Francis stated during the final Mass. “You are called to make everything a prayer, all your daily interactions. Make the Gospel your navigator on the road of life. Be the light of mercy to the world.”
On Friday, we prayed a particularly powerful rendition of the Stations of the Cross, with each station focused on a particular corporal or spiritual work of mercy: to feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, pray for the living and the dead. Then, with his characteristic gentleness and humility, Pope Francis exhorted all of us to show mercy to all we meet, particularly when it is most difficult to do so. “Our credibility as Christians is proven when we complete the works of mercy,” he asserted.
For me, this message is not an easy one. I am old enough to have seen the tougher side of the world we inhabit. I have experienced heartbreak as well as joy, failure as well as success. I watched the Twin Towers fall during my first week of university and have witnessed the ineffectiveness of the so-called War on Terrorism ever since. I grow weary when, despite record-breaking high temperatures, so many people still deny climate change. The current state of United States politics is disappointing, to say the least.
And yet, as I return from the festivity and joy of World Youth Day to the more measured pace of my daily life, as I begin a new academic year teaching many students from difficult backgrounds, Francis’ words remain with me. We who were so fortunate to attend WYD are called to carry its spirit home with us. And, when faced with harsh realities, we are called to respond not with fear, anger, or resentment, but the same Divine Mercy that the young Sr. Faustina once envisioned as two beams of light streaming from Christ’s heart. Ultimately, we are all called to be that light.
Image: Courtesy of Jeannine Pitas