World Youth Day is over. Now the hard work of living its message begins

Pilgrims take photos of Pope Francis as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Brzegi, Poland (AP)

WYD Krakow is all over, but the real work of digesting the Gospel message and interpreting profound experiences is now beginning for hundreds of thousands of young people returning home in coaches, planes and trains.

As they travel, they have vivid images from Pope Francis’ speeches and homilies to mull over. At the night-time vigil in Campus Misericordiae, the Pope spoke powerfully against one of the illusions of our time, ‘’sofa happiness’’. He said: “[There is a kind of paralysis] that comes from confusing happiness with a sofa. In other words, thinking that to be happy all we need is a sofa that allows us to stay home without needing to work at, or worry about, anything.”

The Pope invited us to abandon this sofa in favour of “a pair of walking shoes”, to choose “new and uncharted paths,” to “leave a mark” on the world.

WYD is an adventure, but Pope Francis made it clear that the real adventure is that of the Christian life. In our times, such an adventure seems more and more counter-cultural, and the Pope expressed this clearly: for many people, “drowsy and dull kids” are easier to handle than young people who are “alert and searching, trying to respond to God’s dream and to all the restlessness present in the human heart”.

The Pope warned about overuse of computers, but this WYD was noticeably more digital than previous gatherings. There was the Pilgrim App, and instead of radios, people listened to the live translations through their phones. Some pilgrims expressed concern that the quality of written materials was neglected because of the move to apps. Does the Church really want to make smartphones a necessity for participation in WYD?

Christianity is not just a form of stoicism; works of mercy go beyond mere endurance, and seek to relieve the sufferings of others. I witnessed one act of mercy that really took my breath away. The walk from Krakow to the site of the vigil and Mass – Campus Misericordiae – was a long one; it took me four hours, and big groups travelled much slower. At one point on my journey a small group of young people was walking in front of me, including one girl with a severely impaired gait. She did her best to keep going, but at one point broke down in exhausted tears. Without hesitation, one of her companions took her bag, and another lifted her up onto his shoulders and carried her for miles.

I’ve heard people criticise WYD on the basis that the young pilgrims are just there for a good time. That may be true in some cases, and the festival atmosphere can feel a little frothy, but scratch the surface of any pilgrim group and you often find real personal engagement with Christ.

I was on my own at the night vigil, but I had in my bag a passport to the groups around me: chocolate. One of the groups I shared with was made up of Spanish university students. They were laughing uproariously and singing Spanish pop songs, but when we got talking, I found they were deeply impressive young Christians, involved in street evangelisation in their home town and with a clear vision of their mission in the world as baptised Christians. Were they at WYD for a good time? Certainly. But they were there first and foremost as disciples of Christ.

If you want to make friends at WYD, bring lots of national stash: badges, pins, flags… Anything with your national colours will satisfy the collectors, who are seeking pieces to bring home to show to their family and friends the diversity of WYD pilgrims. It’s actually a powerful metaphor for the universality of the Church: thousands of groups arrive in one place, all waving their own flags.

I only had one little Irish flag, and no intention of swapping it with anyone, since it was my only means of connecting with pilgrims from Ireland. But at the Campus Misericordiae I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: my tricolour is now on its way to Iraq, and I am the proud owner of a metal cross from that land of great suffering and great holiness.

My own WYD pilgrimage was in thanksgiving for my priesthood, having first said a wholehearted “Yes” to a priestly vocation at WYD Cologne in 2005. Getting ready this morning for the journey home, I took a look at my shoes. They’re half-destroyed with all the walking, covered in mud, and swollen with water, and I don’t think they’ll ever return to their old shape. God willing, neither will I, and, God willing, neither will the hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims taking up again the adventure of the Christian life.