KRAKÓW, Poland — Too much goes on at World Youth Day to get to everything of note that happens. Herewith a roundup of things heard and seen that merit a mention:

  • The pictograms of prohibition on the Cracovian trams are comprehensive. The rollerblades have the red line crossed through them, as do ice cream (a cone), food and drink (burger and shake) and smoking (both regular and e-cigarettes depicted). Then a puzzle — a pictogram with a trumpet crossed out. Does it prohibit music? Or just the trumpet? Surely that can’t be right in Kraków, city of the most famous trumpeter in the world: Every hour, day and night, a trumpeter plays from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica in the main square, to each of the four directions. The melody is cut short, to commemorate the time — I believe by the Tatars in the 13th century — when the trumpeter was struck by an arrow as he trumpeted out a warning to the city. Who will warn Cracovians on the trams now?
  • In early July, a great deal was made about an essay in L’Osservatore Romano by Rocco Buttiglione, a confidant of St. John Paul II, arguing that Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) is a legitimate development of the late pope’s teaching, not a break with it. Another important Amoris Laetitia story was largely missed. In his video message to Polish youth just days ahead of WYD, Pope Francis said he was looking forward to meeting Polish families to whom “I will symbolically bring the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.” There was an expectation that the Holy Father would symbolically give copies to young people. In the event, the whole matter was dropped and not a word of Amoris Laetitia was whispered for the entirely of WYD — not a single reference.
  • The decision to deep-six Amoris Laetitia in Kraków was likely taken because the Polish bishops are resolutely against its calling into question the teaching of St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) and Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). In the days leading up to WYD, the meeting with the Polish bishops, which was planned to be a formal address in a public setting, was canceled too, in favor of a private meeting. The public meeting with bishops has been a standard of papal visits for decades, but last September’s visit to the United States and this year’s visit to Mexico did not go as well as hoped. A significant number of bishops did not appreciate being publicly chastised by the Holy Father and let it be known privately. So fearing the objections might not be private, but public, in Poland, the Holy See wisely thought not to mar WYD with such unpleasantness.
  • The mysterious absence of Amoris Laetitia was also an acknowledgment that among the pilgrim leaders of WYD — the college chaplains, the new movements, the theology of the body teachers, the Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life, who hosted the English site — the moral vision of Amoris Laetitia is viewed with deep suspicion. If there was such a thing as a World Elderly Theologians Day, Amoris Laetitia might fare better there.
  • The estimable Inés San Martín of Crux is one of my favorite Vatican reporters. So it was an unusual slip when she wrote of the Holy Father’s visits to Auschwitz and a children’s hospital, “Millions of young people are currently roaming the streets singing, praying and making new friends, and throughout the city, a spirit — and noise — of celebration is palpable. Friday, however, was a reality-check kind of day from the Pope.” That’s a common mistake, thinking that WYD — or any time of retreat, or pilgrimage, or even the liturgy itself — is a departure from the “real world” of sin and suffering. It’s exactly the opposite. God is most real — more real than fallen creation, to be sure — and so that which most participates in God is most real. WYD is a vision of reality, against the less real world of sin, suffering and death. C.S. Lewis taught us that lesson vividly in The Great Divorce, when he noted that the blades of grass in heaven are too sharp for the feet of sinners to tread, so real are the things of God. WYD is an encounter with reality more as God created it to be, desires it be and, in the fullness of time, will manifest it to be. The 1.5 million people killed at Auschwitz were real lives destroyed; the suffering and pain very real. Yet the 1.5 million gathered for WYD Kraków are more real, for life is more real than death, holiness more real than sin, hope more real than despair.
  • The news of Father Jacques Hamel’s murder at the altar of his parish church during holy Mass arrived as WYD was beginning. Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of Kraków referred to the martyrdom that same evening at the opening Mass of WYD, stressing that the priest had been killed during the Eucharist. No doubt Cardinal Dziwisz thought of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław, bishop of Kraków, who was killed by the king in 1079 during Mass. At the catechetical sites, the killing of Father Hamel was often mentioned. Not a word, though, from Pope Francis during the trip, in the city of St. Stanisław. On the return flight home, the Holy Father said his murder was no more “Islamic violence” that domestic violence in Italy was “Catholic violence.”
  • 2016 has become a summer of jihadist terror across Europe, even if the Vatican chooses to ignore it. That meant an enormous security presence in Kraków, with armed men — both military and police — omnipresent. It was incongruous to watch the police, their hands resting on automatic weapons, clearing traffic for 200 Italian pilgrims marching through, with drums and banners, belting out their Alleluias. The pilgrims came in great numbers and didn’t let the threat of terror steal their joy — fitting for the city of St. John Paul. Be not afraid!
  • Security can be dull, spending hour after hour on watch. So it is tempting to while away the time on a smartphone, which is why security personnel are trained not to do it. So it was a bit embarrassing that in the sanctuary of the monastery at Częstochowa, with the Holy Father just steps away from the sacred image of the revered Black Madonna, the head of Vatican security, Domenico Giani, pulled out his smartphone not once, but twice, to capture the moment. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened while Giani was distracted. Nobody was hurt, save for the feelings of the official Vatican photographer, always on hand, who might be offended that his images are not thought good enough for the head of security.
  • One of the advantages of WYD is that the crowds and presence of so many senior personages means that those who otherwise are shown physical and protocol deference are left to jostle in the crowd by themselves. So a friend of mine spoke about having breakfast in the hotel dining room with a nice priest from England. I told him it was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster. Which is all to the good. The old saying has some wisdom in it, that bishops, once ordained, never have a bad meal and never get told the truth. At WYD, with people who have no idea who they are, bishops and cardinals get both — bad meals and the truth.
  • Joining an Australian group for Mass, I encountered something about which I had heard but never experienced. The bishop celebrant used his iPad for the missal on the altar, and another bishop, who preached, used his at the pulpit. It certainly is less cumbersome that carrying about liturgical books, even travel ones. It was all very reverent, but it did not sit well with me. I think Marshall McLuhan said more than even he knew 50 years ago when he characterized electronic communications — by which he meant television — as anti-sacramental. Sacraments make intangible realities tangible, grace conveyed through bread and wine and water and oil. Electronic communications make tangible realities — printed words, people and pictures — less tangible. In the communications age, we cannot avoid the means that are literally wired — except when they are wireless — into everything we do. But perhaps the sacraments themselves should be a limit. Not to mention that the bitten apple is a powerful biblical symbol, and it does not belong on the altar.
  • WYD is a rather intense experience of the sacraments, with daily Mass and confessions seemingly heard ’round the clock. That can pose a challenge, as I was hearing confessions at the English-speaking site on the “night of mercy.” It was a bit of a challenge during the Eucharistic adoration itself, with the hymns and the talk by Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles. Afterwards, when Matt Maher fired up the 12,000 present with a high-energy praise-and-worship session, it was hard even if the penitents chose to shout. They were happy to do so, which struck me as a very impressive devotion to the sacrament.
  • Since Denver, it has become something of a WYD tradition for the best local museum to host a special exhibition of sacred art. Kraków’s National Museum did just that, with a spectacular collection of Marian art under the title of Maria, Mater Misericordiae. Most of the pieces were exquisite works from Renaissance Italy, and it was astonishing to think that most of them had been originally set in ordinary churches, accessible to the faithful, rich and poor alike. Usually curators want originals, not copies, but at the center of Maria Mater Misericordiae was a complete 1-to-1 scale plaster replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica. Millions have seen it in situ, elevated, from a distance, behind protective glass. That is nothing like seeing the replica from inches away, being able to stand beside it at regular height. You haven’t seen the Pietà until you have seen it close up, which means I had never seen the Pietà in Rome until I saw it in Kraków.
  • WYD Kraków was substantively different from previous events held in places where the pilgrims brought, as it were, the witness of holiness to a secular city. Kraków has been producing saints for a millennium, and this WYD was marked by the pilgrims being invited to encounter the witness of holiness already here. The Church’s most recent saint — John Paul the Great — has only been dead 11 years, and holiness here goes back all the way to St. Stanisław, martyred in 1079, and continues to St. Faustina and St. Maximilian Kolbe in the 20th century. The saints were waiting for the pilgrims, and their images were ubiquitous. At the Dominican church, the casket of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was brought for WYD, as his relics had also been present for WYD Sydney in 2008. The Dominicans themselves had a striking display of their 800 years of holiness, depicting their saints, beginning with St. Dominic, as young adults. The communion of saints is immensely important in young-adult ministry, and WYD Kraków brought that pastoral intuition of John Paul — the contemporary need for saints — to WYD in a particular way. At the English-speaking site, there were relics of five saints present — John Paul, Faustina, Kolbe, Jerzy Popiełuszko and Albert Chmielowski — all of whom are Polish and three of whom lived in Kraków. As Cardinal Dziwisz pointed out repeatedly, Kraków has more saints than any other diocese save for Rome. That’s why a visit to Kraków is a pilgrimage in a way that a visit to Toronto or Denver isn’t.
  • Kraków has a sense of the human possibility that extends rather beyond the categories of fame that dominate North America — politics, entertainment and business. One clever advertising campaign in Kraków asked — in English — “Are you ready?” An image of Nicholas Copernicus appeared over the question, “Are you ready to start a scientific revolution?” An image of John Paul was over the question, “Are you ready to be a saint?” An image of Rafał Sonik, the quad rally driver, was over the question, “Are you ready to win Dakar?” Poland knows that human achievement limited to politics is a very cramped view of human life indeed. That’s why it is refreshing to fly into Poland, where they don’t name their airports after politicians. Warsaw’s airport is named after musician Frederic Chopin, Kraków’s is named in honor of John Paul, Gdansk’s is for Lech Wałęsa and Wrocław’s is for Copernicus.


  • When Pope Francis announced that WYD 2019 would be in Panama, there were some raised eyebrows that the host would be Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán, one of the “cardinals from the peripheries” created in 2015. Cardinal Lacunza rocketed to unusual prominence at the synod last fall, when he argued that Moses permitted divorce and remarriage, so why couldn’t the Church be more like Moses and less like Jesus, who did not permit it? It was the Polish bishops who reported what Cardinal Lacunza said, and they were quickly ordered by the synod managers not to report on what other bishops said, as it was not nice to embarrass them with their own words. Cardinal Lacunza’s innovative approach to Christian theology offers some intriguing possibilities for the theme of the Panamanian WYD. Merciful Like Moses? Back to the Couch — Jesus Asks Too Much? Not to worry, though. Cardinal Lacunza is not the archbishop of Panama, the capital city, but of the suffragan Diocese of David. The host will be the archbishop of Panama, José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta.
  • Given his status, Cardinal Lacunza was present at the Panamanian press conference introducing WYD 2019. Acknowledging that his is a small country with only 4 million people, Cardinal Lacunza insisted that Panama has the capacity to pull it off. Citing the experience of the Panama Canal, he pointed out, “Not only did we do it, but we have expanded it and made it bigger.” Yes, the Panama Canal expansion, capable of accommodating superfreighters, was inaugurated in June, two years late and $3.4 billion over budget. Perhaps not a good example to use as a model for WYD.
  • The theme for WYD 2019 will be announced in due course by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which has responsibility for WYD. Or it did. As Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia posted, the responsibility will be transferred on “Sept. 1 with the opening of the new, consolidated disasters for Laity, Family and Life.” Many are those frustrated with the Roman Curia, but “consolidated disasters” seems a bit harsh. If you consolidate existing disasters (dicasteries) into one, does it add or subtract from the sheer amount of disaster?
  • Due to heavy rains, the Pope’s departure ceremony from the airport was canceled, which was for the best, lest closer attention have been paid to the Polish military band providing the music. Before the Holy Father arrived, they played a few marches, but then did When the Saints Go Marching In and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Bewildered at why they were playing American songs in Kraków for an Argentinian pope, a Polish colleague in the media center gamely suggested that they were simply choosing pieces that had religious content — glory, glory, hallelujah! When the Pope arrived, the band broke into a rousing rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, the most anti-Christian popular song this side of John Lennon’s Imagine. Cleary the band had skipped the WYD catechetical sessions. For the grand finale, as Pope Francis ascended the stairway — after pausing at the bottom to wait for an aide to bring him his black satchel so that he could carry it on the plane himself — the band broke into We Are the Champions by Queen. Freddie Mercury is not usually thought of in connection to music for religious occasions. It was a small mercy that it was only instrumental, otherwise the Pope would have waved good-bye to Kraków to a belting out of “No time for losers!”
  • I have been to five WYDs — Manila, Rome, Toronto, Sydney and Kraków — under three popes. All three have brought their own distinctive contribution. In 2008 at the vigil, Pope Benedict XVI gave an extended theological treatment of how St. Augustine understood the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis in Kraków told the crowd not to be couch potatoes. Both worked, though the dense Holy Spirit address in 2008 ought not be repeated! WYD improves. Under John Paul II, the vigils were substantive, but largely a rally. Under Benedict and Francis, they have become more prayerful, concluding with Eucharistic adoration. In his final words in Kraków, Pope Francis told the Panamanians that Peter would be present in 2019, but he did not know if it would be him. Yes, Peter will be present, and should it be another one, he will bring his own gifts to the enduring gift that WYD has become in the Church.

 Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

He was in Kraków to cover

World Youth Day for

the Register and EWTN.