Deacon Jonathan Howell is a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. He is studying Moral Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum, in Columbus, Ohio and will be ordained a priest in 2018.
World Youth Day officially began on Tuesday with the opening Mass offered by Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz, the archbishop of Kraków, in a field just outside the city. Tens of thousands of pilgrims took in some light rain as Dziwisz, John Paul II's personal secretary and close friend, welcomed all the pilgrims to Poland.
Kraków is now officially overrun with pilgrims and a giant Catholic family reunion is taking place all over the city. I personally saw friends from DC, Ohio, Colorado, Alabama, Virginia, Idaho, New York, Texas, Maryland, and even Rome in just a few hours and all in separate encounters. It's a small world, but it's smaller if you're Catholic!
Later in the evening, the Knights of Columbus hosted a Theology on Tap with Archbishop William Lori and Kathryn Jean Lopez in a pub in the Kraków square. Their topic of religious freedom was made even more relevant by the horrifying murder of the 84 year old French priest, Father Jacques, who was murdered just a few hours earlier while saying Mass. The importance of the freedom of religion is manifestly clear in these days of World Youth Day. This incredible source of revival, and the deepening of faith which it brings about, could not take place in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Public expression of Christian Faith is forbidden there, and yet our faith is intrinsically public—lived out essentially in a community.
This Christian community is on full display right now at the Mercy Centre at Tauron Arena. It is the hub for English-speaking pilgrims here in Kraków and its capacity of 18,000 was maxed out for the opening Mass by Cardinal O'Malley of Boston. Thousands more waited outside the Center throughout the day, waiting for room to clear inside the arena. The faith and especially the vitality of English-speaking Catholics is impressive. There are many faithful here from the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, but the vast majority are from the United States and the hundreds of visibly young priests and religious bear witness to the new Springtime of Faith which John Paul II had always confidently predicted.
Along with other seminarians, I was in charge of being MC for the priests during Holy Communion and more than one person remarked on the evident love and reverence that all the priests here have for the Blessed Sacrament. During events like these, I'm always proud to be a Catholic from the United States. We are, without doubt, full of imperfections, but we also have a remarkable vitality that local Churches in the developed world simply do not have. As a Dutch priest just told me: "I know the Church in the US has many problems, just as all places do, but in many ways it is a model for those of us in first world countries where the faith has virtually disappeared." The Church in the United States is proof that the Church can survive and even thrive in first world countries even in the midst of materialism and secularism.
Here at the Mercy Centre we gather to ask the Lord to bring even greater reform and vitality to the Church all over the world and especially in the United States. Judging by the thousands of young people in Adoration, at the Veneration of Relics, and also literally waiting hours to go to confession, there certainly is great hope for the future and a continued springtime in the Church with the intercession of St. John Paul II.