One Week Later, Reflections on World Youth Day 2016

(photo: Photo credit: Justin Bell)

I got back on Tuesday night from WYD Krakow, my third World Youth Day, and it is official: I am no longer a youth! This trip has confirmed that, and I will be taking a break from mega-crowd Catholic events for awhile—at least until the World Meeting of Families in Ireland.

But back in 2002, when I saw St. John Paul II at WYD Toronto, I was 26 and at the target age for this wonderful event. This time, the combination of being able to go to Poland (JPII’s homeland) on an inexpensive trip plan with semi-autonomy from the group’s schedule was enough reason to sign up again.

I went on a trip led by Shalom Boston, part of the international Shalom Catholic Community that started in Brazil. This community is very welcoming, hospitable and a big part of WYD. The beauty of this event is that pilgrims can receive different bouquets of graces and insights, some subtle and some more dramatic, some shared and some very specific. It shows that our God cares for us personally. With my more senior perspective, here are just some of my WYD moments.

Our Host Family

Shalom arranged for our group of about 25 to be split into different host families. This didn’t mean that our new families were waiting for us with perogies right when we got off the jet in Krakow. And I am glad for that, as we needed to get in some pilgrim chops after a relatively easy passage into Krakow. And this happened: waiting, walking, train ride, walking, some confusion in a new city, tram ride, much walking, and a lot of waiting at a staging area at a school, getting closer, someone forgetting a bag, a bit more waiting. Finally, friendly Polish guides brought us to a meeting point with members of our new family, who walked us to their home nearby.

Can you imagine inviting five foreign men and their luggage into your home for over a week? Our host family consisted of a mom and a dad, their 20-year-old son and two teenage daughters, one of whom was an official WYD volunteer. Starting with a hot traditional Polish meal and wine that first evening, the whole family helped us in so many ways but especially with their presence and conversation. They really showcased the power of a family working together and our stay with them gave us some of the best memories I have of the pilgrimage. I look forward to staying in touch and hopefully returning the hospitality in some way.


About an hour and ten minutes outside of Krakow by bus is the Polish town of Oswiecim. And in this town is the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. A visit to the region should include a visit to the memorial. It is that important for remembering and learning about the atrocities that were committed there—and also about the heroes. Pope Francis visited the Friday of WYD week, as had Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II in years past.

Our group walked the grounds at various paces, alone or with others. I lagged behind, reading the signs and taking photos. The ominous clouds and rumble of thunder made it clear we might get soaked soon and really thickened the experience of the visit. Soon it was raining hard enough for folks to take cover along the sides of some of the buildings, their roof overhangs providing some dry ground.

It was an odd experience to be lined up with others against a building in a former concentration camp. The inmates of Auschwitz had to endure a daily roll call, without shelter, while Nazis checked to see if anyone was missing. Sometimes these roll calls lasted up to 12 hours in all sorts of weather; it was another form of torment. There is a small booth on the grounds, where guards could take shelter from the elements while the inmates were kept in the open.

Auschwitz is also where St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, stepped forward to take the place of a man condemned to death, a man who was married with children. Outlasting the Nazis’ starvation process, he was eventually given a lethal injection. A picture of St. Maximilian is prominently placed on these grounds and visiting the place is to visit a martyrdom site.

Afterwards, a group of us were able to attend Mass at a church nearby— a welcome place to be after such a visit. We saw a unique image of the Divine Mercy in the church. Instead of placing Jesus in front of a black background, he is portrayed with scenes from Auschwitz.

Watching Polish Television

On Wednesday evening, we were going to see Matt Maher and Audrey Assad at Krakow Arena, but on arriving, the venue was already at capacity and nobody else was going to be let in. Instead, we were part of the crowd that hung around outside listening to the live music on outdoor speakers and enjoying the summer evening.

Our host brother, Jacob, was there too and he confirmed with his mother that a hot meal was in our future. Off we went, as an early evening suddenly sounded like a good idea. And there we were, enjoying another Polish meal, when the television broadcast coverage began of Pope Francis’ anticipated message to a jubilant crowd from a window in Krakow center. Our host dad maneuvered his fancy TV so we could see the broadcast from the table. There was the anticipation and then the Pope appeared and began to speak. After his initial greeting in Polish, he switched to Italian, which was great as our group leader Matt speaks this also. He started translating the Holy Father’s words to us with expression. Pope Francis commemorated the death of a WYD volunteer from cancer and said the young man was present and watching over the event and from heaven—and heaven is our goal, to meet friends there. Earlier Pope Francis’ asking of the crowd for a moment of silence was a poignant moment to behold.

Having a Polish dinner in a Polish home, watching a Polish broadcast of the Holy Father, brought to mind the millions of Polish people who watched St. John Paul II on their television screens in his trips to his native land. After this, we spent more time with the family and this evening was one of my favorite and unique memories of the journey.

Agents of Mercy

Even before I left Boston, I felt that disconcerting sensation in your chest that a cold might be setting up camp in your body. By Thursday afternoon of WYD week, the cold had claimed its territory and was growing.

One of my fellow pilgrims, Molly, is aware of my plight and gives me vitamin C product that she has packed away for me. On Friday evening, a new Polish friend of mine, Ania, who happens to be a pharmacist, guides me to a pharmacy where she converses with another pharmacist about the proper medication for me. Very helpful.

Toward the end of the trip, Matt buys me a six pack of tissue packs and a big bottle of water. He also buys the same for himself, yet it was probably me who gave him his own Krakow cough, as we shared the same room. All of these kind people have made my WYD Krakow moments for life, living out the Gospel.

Unsung Servants of WYD-

To KFC workers dutifully serving nightmarishly long lines of hungry pilgrims holding WYD meal vouchers, to the sanitation crew that arrived in the wee hours of the overnight Vigil to clean and empty portable toilets, to the priests on the radio broadcast who translated Pope Francis’ words into English and then asked for prayers at the end of the broadcast, to the many security and medical personnel, to tram drivers and elderly tram riders, there are many, many unsung servants of WYD. Thank you, all of you.

Merciful Silence

Again, these were only some of the moments. I could write on how the Vigil walk and sleepover raised my awareness of a migrant’s plight, even in a small way. I could write on the beautiful atmosphere of that candlelit evening and Pope Francis encouraging us to build bridges (beginning with the easiest bridge, to clasp the hand of your neighbor). I could write about merciful shade trees that gave much needed respite on the scorching Sunday.

World Youth Days can be noisy affairs for sure, but the moments of silence are very powerful. Such a rich blessing it was to visit the church with the original image of the Divine Mercy Jesus placed above the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska. After this veneration, there was plenty of room in the chapel to enjoy the silence of Eucharistic Adoration among people of different lands who shared my beliefs.

Jezu Ufam Tobie (Jesus I Trust in You)