“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,” said Burns, and this is rarely more in evidence than at World Youth Day. How could anyone plan sufficiently to take into account the choices, desires and sheer whims of a million or more people? Of the hundreds of prayer events, concerts and exhibitions in Kraków, some are near deserted, and some are uncomfortably swamped. Public transport too is unpredictable. There’s little more frustrating than seeing tram after tram go by your stop, full to the gills, as you grudgingly begin to accept that your one “must see” at WYD won’t in fact work out.
For me, I had a double disappointment on my first day. Full trams weren’t my problem: instead I spent my afternoon in the heart of WYD bureaucracy – think Kafka meets Enid Blyton – resolving a problem with my registration. It was all my own fault of course, as revealed by the fourth volunteer bureaucrat I spoke to: “So you haven’t received a pilgrim pack. Have you paid?” “Oh, wait, I think… maybe not.” My mendicant instincts had let me down, and I ended up missing both a dialogue on religious freedom with George Weigel and an Iraqi bishop, and a praise and worship session with Matt Maher and Audrey Assad.
Like all other pilgrims in the face of such disappointments, I had to let go of my plans and go with whatever Providence had to offer. In the end, Providence beat my plans hands down. Instead of hearing an Iraqi bishop interviewed, I met four of our Iraqi Dominican sisters, heroic women of God who have stayed in Iraq to educate its internally displaced Christian and Yazidi children. And instead of listening to praise and worship music passively, I had one of the most moving musical experiences of my life: a procession in the Basilica of the Holy Trinity with more than 100 hale and hearty Dominican brothers warmly belting out the Salve Regina and hymns to Dominican saints. Again and again at WYD you hear similar stories of disappointments turned to serendipitous surprises: ‘Even the very hairs on your head have been numbered’ (Lk 12:7).
One of the most enjoyable aspects of WYD is the unrivalled opportunity for intercultural exchange. Groups and individuals proudly identify themselves with national and regional flags, as well as by means of chants (“Italiani batti le mani” is a particular favourite). If pilgrims were Pokémon, the French, Italians and Spanish would be Pikachus: they’re everywhere, and you end up ignoring them. But you also find your antennae become sensitive to the rarer breeds of pilgrim. I counted today a success, having found Chinese pilgrims, Panamanians, a Finn, and a Solomon Islander.
An American remarked to me that much of WYD culture is borrowed from the world of soccer fandom: the chants especially are, apparently, rather alien to the world of American sport, and American pilgrims have only the rather prosaic “USA, USA!” to compete with the cacophonic panoply of South American, Italian and French chants. When I first arrived in Kraków I heard a familiar tune, made famous by Irish fans at the European championships in France (“Stand up for the boys in green”, “Stand up for the French police”, “Clean up for the boys in green”, etc etc). One of the French chanters (cantors?) explained: “We heard the Irish singing the tune in Paris and we just changed the words for WYD.” Another consequence of the Euros: the flags of heroic Icelanders are suddenly and unexpectedly ubiquitous, waved with pride, and received with jubilation.
Regarding noise, Wednesday’s papal window event ended with confusing instructions. Pope Francis, having led the youth in a minute of silent prayer for a deceased volunteer, geared up the crowd again for celebration with the words: “Now go and do your duty, make noise all night long!” Unfortunately, the Polish interpreter inserted a negative: “Now go and do your duty, and don’t make noise tonight.” Some confusion ensued, but, needless to say, the faithful eventually carried out the Pope’s actual wishes.
If any young people did want to experience silence last night, they had the opportunity of an all-night vigil at the 13th-century Dominican church and priory, in the presence of Fr Bruno Cadoré OP, the 86th successor of St Dominic as the Master of the Order of Preachers. During the opening Mass of the vigil, the church was horrifically humid, and booklets were everywhere turned into fans. How to keep the huge crowd from fleeing into the cool outdoors, leaving the vigil an empty failure? An astute Polish Dominican had the answer: “We have heard rumours that Pope Francis may come to the vigil at some point during the night… even if he is a Jesuit.”