In repose, Pope Francis can look somewhat forbidding, even bored. But to make him come alive you just have to hand him a microphone. Thursday evening at Błonia Park was no exception.
Welcome dances and flag-waving seemed to move him little, but when he stood up to his white podium equipped with white microphone, he delivered an impassioned fervorino to the gathered masses of young people. He spoke of the danger of young people “taking early retirement”: “I worry when I see young people who have ‘thrown in the towel’ before the game has even begun, who are defeated even before they begin to play, who walk around glumly as if life has no meaning. Deep down, young people like this are bored – and boring!”
Those caught in this gloomy boredom, the Pope said, are at risk of seeking intense thrills from “peddlers of illusions, sellers of smoke”. Young people have a choice, “empty thrills or the power of grace”, and the Pope invited the young people to make that choice audibly there and then. It really was moving to hear the crowd roar back in unison: “La forza della grazia!”
Is WYD all about shouting and cheering? One priest I spoke to bemoaned the lack of possibilities for a genuine intellectual and spiritual exchange with and between the young pilgrims.
It’s no doubt possible to pass through the WYD experience at a fairly superficial level, waving and cheering with the crowds, but without meeting the Lord in any profound way. The catechesis sessions are designed to challenge this superficiality by means of attractive teaching, lively music and silent prayer.
The programme organised by the Knights of Columbus in the Tauron Arena, for example, is truly exceptional in this respect: MCed by the hilarious Chris Stefanick, the programme includes musicians Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, speakers like Bishop Robert Barron and testimonies from inspiring young believers.
But it seems to me that the lasting effect of WYD really depends on the pilgrim group: if the group has prepared well in the lead up to WYD, if it has participated in the Days in the Diocese, if it has prayer (especially silent prayer) as a priority, if it has some kind of mentoring or sharing activities that enable pilgrims to digest their experiences, then its pilgrims are unlikely to leave WYD unchanged.
My first WYD was with a small group from Fisher House, the Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge University, and I was certainly profoundly affected by the experience, as was Fisher House when we pilgrims returned with a new zeal for evangelisation and prayer.
One of the great joys of being here in Kraków has been meeting some old friends from Fisher House, some of whom I haven’t met since university: two are English Dominicans, one a Polish Capuchin, another a brother of the Community of St John, and two dynamic lay women with immense personal apostolates.
Perhaps young pilgrims find pleasure in making many new friends and being amazed that so many others share your faith, but the joy of older pilgrims is in re-connecting with old friends, sharing and savouring God’s work in our lives.
One thing I noticed in meeting up with my thirtysomething peers is that they are exhausted. The difference between now and our first WYD is not just a matter of age, it’s also a question of responsibility. Footloose pilgrims become hard-working pilgrimage leaders.
Seeing this cycle in action made me think about the extraordinary commitment and selflessness of leaders and volunteers at WYD. The bubbly excitement at WYD would quickly dry up were it not for the careful planning and patient endurance of these servants of the young Church.
Statement T-shirts are a big thing at WYD. Pilgrims are likely to be adorned with mottos like “I Love Pope Francis”, “Catholic Church: Founded 33 AD” or “Mary is my homegirl”. But I spotted one youngster with a rather more daring, but no doubt sincere, slogan on his top: “I Love Polish Girls”. Can’t blame a lad for trying.
Speaking of T-shirts, Cardinal Timothy Dolan made a surprise announcement during catechesis at the Tauron Arena, the base of many of the American pilgrims: “Homeland Security have sent me an urgent message – the WYD T-shirts you’ve been wearing for the last five days have been reclassified as biological weapons and will not be granted re-entry to the United States.” WYD may be a very modern pilgrimage, but at the olfactory level it’s thoroughly medieval.
Cardinal Dolan was on fine form during his catechesis, but the 20,000 strong audience witnessed a rare moment of speechlessness from the loquacious prelate.
At the end of Dolan’s talk, an Australian introduced himself, at which point Dolan interrupted him: “I love Australia!! Do you have a big knife? Wrestle any crocodiles?”, and so on in the same vein for some while until finally he said, “Oh and I bet you have a great Australian accent too, do you wanna let us hear it?”, to which the cheeky Aussie replied: “I will if you give me a chance.”
The effusive eminenza, reduced to silence, simply removed his red zucchetto and placed it on the young Australian’s head.
WYD is such an international affair you can almost forget where exactly you are. But what does WYD Krakow mean for the Poles themselves? One Polish couple shared with me their perspective: “Kraków under communism was a grey place. Back then, we couldn’t have imagined all this colour and joy in our city.”
I have noticed older Poles wandering around the churches packed with pilgrims, with quiet smiles on their faces. We international pilgrims don’t know what they’ve lived through, but our colourful presence brings them joy and, one senses, a certain peace.
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