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WYD 2016: Moments of noisy celebration and quiet contemplation in Kraków

People kneel at confessionals set up in a park in Kraków (AP)

World Youth Day has officially begun! After years of preparation more than 200,000 of pilgrims attended the opening Mass – and are now getting ready for Pope Francis’s arrival.

Having spent a week here already the difference in atmosphere is clear wherever you go. The first week was spent training, as I’m volunteering in Kraków, and while there are 19,000 of us signed up to serve, the streets of the city were relatively quiet.

Now that couldn’t be further from the truth. Take a short walk to the Main Square and you will see nuns dancing in the street, rapping priests and hordes of people singing their national anthems.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were at Glastonbury or even a nightclub, but all of this exuberant excitement is all for World Youth Day – the Catholic Youth Festival that attracts millions of young people from around the globe.

Chants of “Papa!” can be heard, as well as a confusing mix of accents – though I definitely keep hearing the Scottish burr.

Amid all this noise, there have been moments of profound calm though. The first was when the relics of Blessed Giorgio Frassati were taken to the Dominican Church in the centre in Kraków at the weekend.

There was Adoration, so I found myself seeking solace in front of Our Lord. The peaceful stillness of the church – and the coolness – were a soothing spiritual balm.

I was hot, sweaty and more than a little tired. Try sleeping in a judo sports hall, with shared showers and hundreds of other volunteers. It isn’t pretty.

Such simpleness of living does afford you the opportunity to appreciate the luxuries of life back home, which is one important lesson I contemplated as I sat in silence with my friends.

We were treated to Polish and English hymns, both languages beautifully sung side by side. Closing my eyes and drinking in the atmosphere, all the problems were put on hold for a moment.

The second moment of calm was in the John Paul II centre. It wasn’t the first time I had visited but it was the first time I fully appreciated how the Polish feel about the former Pontiff.

Inside the doors  to the left there’s a glass cabinet, inside that is a cassock – St John Paul II’s cassock that he wore when he was shot.

Pilgrims knelt down in front of it, and one girl caught my attention – tears streamed down her face as she looked at the material. What essentially is a piece of fabric, is imbued with meaning. It means so much to the Polish, but just as much to any Catholic.

The simple label says in Polish this is what Pope John Paul II wore in 1981. What it doesn’t say is how close he came to dying, and the amazing act of Mercy he showed by forgiving his attacker.

I couldn’t think of anything more poignant to kick start World Youth Day as I considered everything it meant.

This World Youth Day is hinged of Divine Mercy. As the Cardinal said at the opening Mass today, Do not be afraid! – the motto of WYD. I knew this before I came, but now I feel I needed to be here to realise exactly what it means.