After the torrential storms that swept over the city of Kraków on Sunday afternoon, most pilgrims have left the city and taken home the message of The Holy Father’s closing homily – that we must believe in a new humanity and take the message of the Gospel into our homes and our lives. Waking up in London on a wet Monday morning, the realisation of what we had encountered on the Campus Misericordae was felt profoundly.
The scale of the site was quite astounding and put the figure of two million into perspective. Many people had to make the eight mile walk back to the centre of the city as trams were suspended and buses were at full capacity. Many would say the walk to and from the site put them in an unenviable position, however it made the WYD experience a true pilgrimage.
World Youth Day has given British pilgrims the opportunity to encounter the faith in a country where the Faith flows through its cultural arteries. The 31st World Youth Day has been particularly significant for Poland. It coincided with the Jubilee of Mercy and the celebration of the 1050th Anniversary of the Baptism of Poland, something that was met with animosity 50 years ago. Never in Poland’s history have so many people come together for a single event with pilgrims from more than 180 countries marking it as a truly international event.
The group of 28 that I travelled with was composed of a mixture of ages from 17 to 29; many of whom met through the Faith Movement conferences. Each of us drew something different from the week with some being particularly moved by the atrocities at Auschwitz and others the image of the Divine Mercy. We were, however, all overcome by the sheer size of the Campus and by the number of people who came to unite with Christ through the Sacraments. I was personally overwhelmed by the silence that descended across the site as the bells rung during Benediction. Everyone was knelt in deep reverence at what was taking place, in some cases well over a mile away.
Pilgrims were encouraged to visit a number of sites within easy reach of the city to gain an appreciation of Poland’s religious, historical and cultural heritage. During the week Churches across the city were set up for Catechesis which was followed by Mass in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form.
We received a lecture from Bishop Schneider who took a hard line on moral issues and focused on chastity, appropriate dress and the importance of regular confession. Many of the young people I spoke to following the lecture found it refreshing to hear someone talk unequivocally on issues of such importance although certain questions were not answered with the practical advice that was requested.
Many people rightly had concerns over the lack of reverence during the event, especially the administering of Holy Communion. It was certainly a worry I had before even making plans to go to Kraków. I was, however, stirred during the Vigil and the Mass by the thousands of people I saw who treated the site with due reverence. The only people moving around and whispering were the hundreds of volunteers who were working tirelessly to ensure that everyone had water as temperatures approached 30C during the closing Mass. I’m sure one would not have had to look far to see bad practice, but we must recognise the overwhelming majority of people who attended WYD seeking to deepen their relationship with Christ.
We must believe “in a new humanity” as Pope Francis instructed us to do on Sunday and young people must stand as actors in this new humanity amidst growing pressure from extremism on one side and relativism on the other. We must look back on World Youth Day as a pillar of international unity and at Poland which has contended with many of the evils we must overcome. Indeed we must take the experience of World Youth Day beyond the city of Kraków and into our daily lives so that we might become witnesses not to an insular or forlorn way of life but to the joy and mercy of the Gospel.