“This is a pilgrimage, not a vacation.” I heard these words repeatedly as I prepared to attend World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland with 19 other Catholics from the Archdiocese of Portland. As Michal Horace, director of the Office of Youth & Young Adult Ministry for the archdiocese and our leader for this trip, said, “A vacation is for recreation and relaxation, other trips are for education and stimulation, but pilgrimages are all about transformation.” And though we did have opportunities to explore and sightsee Poland during our 10 days there, this refrain remained true throughout, as pilgrim after pilgrim experienced God in different and meaningful ways.
Our 10 days in Poland was really split into two separate trips: the actual World Youth Days that lasted from July 26 to July 31 and then a ‘pre-trip’ of Poland in the days preceding the start of World Youth Day. Both these trips had their own distinct and profound impact on me and my fellow pilgrims, but the pre-trip held special significance because in several instances, we literally walked in the footsteps of the saints. We visited several of the most iconic landmarks in the Krakow area, especially monuments that brought home the theme of mercy that World Youth Day was centered around. In addition to the famed Wieliczka Salt Mine and the grand Wawel Castle, we went to the home where St. John Paul II was born in Wadowice, which now houses a museum dedicated to the great saint, and the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow, located next to the very convent where Our Lord appeared to St. Faustina Kowalska in the image of Divine Mercy.
While we continued to acclimate to Poland and visited various sites, our group had no problem jelling, even though most of us had never met before. It was incredible to witness a group of strangers connecting so well in such a short time. It seemed that in just a day, we were getting along as if we’d know each other for years instead of hours. Key to this was the closeness we were able to have as a group for the first few days. Whereas during World Youth Day, our days would be long and we might be separated for meals, the pre-trip was amazing because it allowed us to connect with each other in relaxed settings. We had the great blessing to have daily Mass in several iconic locations said by Archbishop Sample, who traveled with us during the pre-trip. Every day for breakfast and dinner at the hotel, we had meals privately as a group, with the owners taking very good care of us. This easy-going feeling extended into our leisure time, when we would often sit and converse, play cards or pray a rosary, helping set the tone for the rest of the pilgrimage.
The day before the opening Mass of World Youth Day, we visited Czestochowa and the Jasna Gora Monastery, where the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, patroness of Poland, is housed. This stop was particularly special to our group because of its significance to Archbishop Sample. For more than 36 years, he has had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, being part Polish himself, and had longed to be able to visit this amazing image. After some last minute changes, we were able to have Mass in the chapel that houses the icon of Our Lady, and the archbishop served as the main celebrant. Many of the Portland pilgrims were able to function as the choir for the Mass, which added even more significance to the occasion.
If you were to ask anyone in our group for the top highlights of their World Youth Day experience, having Archbishop Sample with us would surely be in the top five. He was there from the start, and not just in a pastoral way, but as someone who wanted to get to know each and every one of us. “Having the archbishop be with us, joke with us, be real with us, celebrate the Mass for us, was such a grace,” said Carmelite Brother Matthias Lambrecht, one of my fellow pilgrims. Each one of us had the opportunity to speak personally with the archbishop, whether about baseball, catechesis or his vocation.
Soon enough, the actual World Youth Day events began and with that so did a never ending rush of human bodies in streets, trams, buses and restaurants. I don’t think I’ll ever complain about standing in line ever again after some of the lines we had to stand through! But having these masses of people didn’t detract from the pilgrimage, it only enhanced it. Walking through the streets of Krakow, it was impossible not to hear the chants of the Italians, Spaniards, or of any of the other 185 countries in attendance. The electricity of hearing close to two million voices joined in prayer at the papal events and knowing that they were all there to celebrate and grow in a shared Catholic faith was incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced.
As a Boy Scout, I’m always on the lookout for fellow Scouts and when I find them, there's this instant connection we feel because of the bond we have through Scouting. World Youth Day was no different. Whether it was fellow Salvadorans, members of my old parish in California, or Scouts from Italy, France, and Poland, almost everywhere I went, I met someone I connected to somehow. And I wasn’t the only one. Several other Portland pilgrims had similar encounters. The seminarians met several counterparts from across the globe and others found pilgrims in their same field of study or struck up conversations in languages such as Italian and German. This definitely made those cramped bus rides a lot more bearable.
The catechesis sessions we attended each morning at the Mercy Center for English-speaking pilgrims were crucial in helping us understand World Youth Day’s theme of, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." We heard from a host of special guests, including a few cardinals, over the course of three days with each of them delivering a powerful message not just about mercy, but also about chastity, religious freedom, and finding your vocation. After these sessions, we would have Mass in the Mercy Center with close to 18,000 other English speakers. Again, it was absolutely incredible to be in one location with so many others who are on fire for their faith.
As the pilgrimage wound down, I asked some of my fellow pilgrims for their thoughts on World Youth Day and how it has inspired them. And though I don’t have the space to share what each of them said, they all spoke of the same inspiration: a renewed calling to grow closer to Christ and spread his mercy to all they meet. “At one of the catechesis sessions, we were told that mercy isn’t something we do once, but is an act that we do continually,” said Jeremy Voltz, of St. Cecilia’s in Portland, “so striving and growing in being merciful, not just on a few occasions but living a life according to that — that’s what we need to do.” This is what we are all called to do, not just during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, but for the rest of our lives afterward. Our time in Krakow helped me understand that, and I pray that I can continue Pope Francis’ call to battle with every step I take.