On the way to World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland, many Sydney Catholic school pilgrims were hoping for a glimpse of Pope Francis and a stand-out selfie. They left instead with a clearer picture of their own faith and potential.
The final World Youth Day Mass drew an estimated crowd of three million people. Standing among the press of people it would have been easy to feel lost at sea, yet it was in the most challenging parts of the journey that the more than 560 Sydney Catholic school pilgrims who ventured to Krakow really found their feet. Blisters, heat stroke and tiredness were met with good humour, determination and the quality emphasised by the global event’s theme – Mercy.
When Pope Francis chose the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” to be the 2016 World Youth Day theme, there were plenty of people and places in Poland to help breathe life into the words. About 92 per cent of Poland’s population are Catholic, a belief that has stayed strong despite the economic and political hardship wrought by past communist rule and historical scars of Auschwitz, the largest of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps where more than 1.1 million people were killed.
Many pilgrims found it special to have attended a World Youth Day in the home country of World Youth Day founder and the Vatican’s longest reigning pope St John Paul II. They got to appreciate the legacy of the Pope of 26 years and of St Faustina, who shared the concept of Divine Mercy with the world through visits to significant churches. Both were chosen as the event’s patron saints. But it was Pope Francis’ words that really hit the mark for most.
With her Italian language skills, Bethlehem College Ashfield Year 12 student Kristina Sergi, 16, translated on her own at the Papal welcome held in Krakow’s Blonia Park on July 29. She said she appreciated Pope Francis’ call to be merciful in different ways, and to live out the Gospel and be the change within the Church. “It’s inspiring because the youth are often mocked for believing in something as big as a religion,” she said. “I love the fact that the Pope believes in us, and says the youth aren’t the Church of tomorrow, we’re already the church of today.”
Aquinas Catholic College Menai Year 10 student Michael Monk was also a fan of Pope Francis’ homilies, including one said at the Night Vigil at Campus Misericordiae on July 30. There the Pope called for young people to live out the Gospel within their daily lives, and while embracing their individual talents.
“I had the radio on listening to the English translation of Pope Francis’ words and it really did feel special,” Michael said. “I liked how he personalised it to a more modern audience.”
You filled Krakow with the contagious enthusiasm of your faith. St John Paul II has rejoiced from heaven, and he will help you spread the joy of the Gospel everywhere.
De La Salle College Ashfield pilgrim group leader Matthew Fernance said the chaplains attached to each bus group had also been significant to the journey. “It was great seeing the priests as regular, everyday awesome people, rather than someone who might be a bit difficult to approach,” he said. “They’re your mate on this journey and that has made it really easy for the teachers and students to have a full faith journey.”
Bethany College Hurstville pilgrim group leader Laura Mirabello said the cultural diversity in Krakow’s streets during World Youth Day added to the experience. “It didn’t matter that we all spoke different languages because the universal greeting was an enthusiastic high five,” she said. “It was an incredible atmosphere.”
First stop was a swim in the Dead Sea for the two bus groups to visit the Holy Lands. The Bible came to life for pilgrims with visits to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross). Pilgrims also visited Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem and other ancient spiritual sites before departing from Tel Aviv for Krakow, Poland. Apart from a hold up crossing the border into Israel, the consensus was that the trip was both beautiful and spiritual. Champagnat Catholic College Pagewood Year 11 student Richard Vaku’uta described the experience as reviving. “I felt a strong connection to my faith there. We went to the church of the Holy Sepulchre near where Jesus was crucified and buried.”
In Italy, the itinerary included St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Florence, and the Bridge of Sighs, Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Assisi became a highlight, with pilgrims learning more about St Francis who gave away all material possessions and a place in his family’s fabric trade business to reinvigorate the Catholic Church.
In Prague two bus groups admired architecture including the city’s Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge and Our Lady of Victory Church. Patrician Brothers’ College Fairfield Year 10 student Lachlan Hyde said meeting new people on the streets of Prague was his first taste of World Youth Day’s broader appeal. “On the final walk back to our bus we met an Irish pilgrim group who we chatted to for five minutes before we left,” he said. “This sense of belonging to God’s larger family is beginning to sink in.”
Pilgrimage v travel
Pilgrims soon learnt to embrace feeling uncomfortable and that the flipside of visiting inspiring religious sites was tiredness.
“With a pilgrimage it’s more about yourself and finding a way through to your spirituality, whereas with a holiday it’s more relaxed and you do what you want,” said Marcellin College Randwick student Lucas Baldacchino of the difference between the two. “You never know what is going to come to you. For example I didn’t know that walk was going to be difficult. I was overwhelmed sometimes, but you just get over it.”
Bethlehem College student Ema Lata agreed. “Going to Italy and seeing all of this amazing scenery was really surreal. At first it didn’t feel like a spiritual journey – it felt like a tour. But once we had prayer and mass and reflection it hit you that this was a pilgrimage. I think some people really forget that it is a pilgrimage because of all the hotels, complaining about sore feet and blisters. On a pilgrimage we’re supposed to empty ourselves. Encountering Christ is the number one thing, especially when you go to mass every day.”
Bus 15 Chaplain Fr Simon Kitimbo said the beauty of the World Youth Day experience was that people were able to put up with any sort of setback. “They don’t look at the challenges but at the most important things,” he said. “At World Youth Day we take what comes and call it part of the pilgrim experience. We are able to put up with it, be happy and just help each other out. That is the spirit of World Youth Day and the spirit God asks us to be. If we were able to live like that every day, the world would be a better place.”
For more details of the pilgrimage view the blog: aboutcatholicschools.wordpress.com/wyd16