Pope Francis Praises World Youth Day’s ‘Spiritual Breath of Fresh Air’

‘In these days, we have experienced the beauty of our universal fraternity in Christ,’ the Pope told the youth.

Pope Francis delivers his homily at Mass at the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony in Krakow's Blonia Park on July 28.
Pope Francis delivers his homily at Mass at the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony in Krakow's Blonia Park on July 28. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

KRAKOW, Poland — Pope Francis wrapped up his five-day apostolic voyage to Poland on Sunday, offering a message of mercy, hope and encouragement, not only to young people attending the 31st World Youth Day in Krakow, but also to the Polish nation, which is celebrating 1,050 years since its Christian birth.

“In these days, we have experienced the beauty of our universal fraternity in Christ,” the Pope told the faithful during his Angelus address after the final Mass of the July 27-31 papal visit. The entire World Youth Day event, he said, has been “a spiritual ‘breath of fresh air’ that will help you live lives of mercy once you return to your own countries and communities.”

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow told reporters on Sunday that the Pope was “very pleased with the entire course of World Youth Day” and noted he was “enthusiastically welcomed by the young people.” Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said the event showed how, contrary to earlier concerns, the Polish youth are “equally enthusiastic” about Francis as they are about St. John Paul II. The large turnout, he said, was a credit to the young people, who have shown they are not “hopeless and worse than previous generations,” as some perceive them. “The young people are good,” he said, offering “hope and faith.”

Speaking on the penultimate day of the Pope’s visit, the spokesman for the Polish bishops, Father Paweł Rytel-Andrianik, told the Register that the bishops were “very happy” about the Pope’s visit and “very grateful” for it. He predicted it would become “one of the most important” events in Polish history, as it coincided with the nation’s celebration of 1,050 years since its baptism and the Church-wide Year of Mercy.

The apostolic voyage began on a political note, with the Pope calling on Polish authorities to have a “spirit of readiness” in welcoming those fleeing wars and hunger. He also called for international efforts to be made to resolve conflicts and wars that force many people to migrate.

The Polish government’s policy on migration, thought to be supported by most Poles and many Polish bishops, is one of limitation, especially when it comes to refugees from the Middle East. They are concerned about a large Muslim influx, which they also link to increased terrorism in Europe.

But the Pope said “great wisdom and compassion” are called for when it comes to migration, “in order to overcome fear and to achieve the greater good.” 

“There is a need to seek out the reasons for emigration from Poland and to facilitate the return of all those wishing to repatriate,” he said. “Also needed is a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.” He also called for steps to be made to resolve conflicts and wars that force so many people to leave their homes and their native lands.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told Polish radio July 30 that “every country has its own specific situation” and that each must “consider what to do and in what way.”

Later that evening, the Pope had a private meeting with Polish bishops in Wawel Cathedral. Some had reported that the Pope would criticize the bishops on their approach to immigration and other issues, but Archbishop Gadecki said the atmosphere was “very warm,” and the Pope listened to their concerns.

The Pope fielded questions not only on migrants and refugees, but also secularization and de-Christianization in Western Europe, applying mercy in today’s world, and the role of Catholic movements and associations in parish life.

The Pope, Archbishop Gadecki said, instructed the bishops to “exercise sound reasoning” and Gospel values when it comes to migrants. Speaking about the meeting generally, Archbishop Gadecki said the Pope “had a very simple way” of addressing them, “as if speaking to children.”

It’s not clear whether the Pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), was discussed at the meeting. Pope Francis had said in a video message to Poland before the event that he would be “symbolically” bringing Amoris Laetitia to Poland, but the document was never mentioned in any of his speeches.

Later that evening, the Holy Father took part in a television link-up with Italian young people, in which he spoke to them about the Christian approach to suffering, especially marginalization. “Peace builds bridges,” he said, “whereas hatred is the builder of walls” — words the Pope would repeat several times during the visit.

The Pope also appeared at the window of the archbishop’s palace that evening and every evening of his visit, just as John Paul II liked to do when he was archbishop of Krakow. He held a moment of silence to remember Maciej Cieśla, the 22-year-old designer who designed the WYD flags and died of cancer on July 2.

“Let us thank the Lord for giving us these examples of courage, of courageous young people who help us to persevere!” the Pope said. Upon leaving, he told the young people to do their part, which is to “make a ruckus all night,” showing their joy for Jesus.

The following day, early in the morning, the Holy Father made a brief stopover at the Convent of the Sisters of the Presentation in Krakow, arriving half an hour earlier than expected (many of his engagements on this visit began earlier than scheduled). Writing in the guest book, the Pope expressed his “gratitude” for their “generous service” and urged them to “cultivate with love the seeds of goodness, beauty and truth that God sows in every new generation.”

Poor weather prevented his flight by helicopter to the Shrine of Czestochowa, and so the Holy Father was driven there instead. In his homily during the Mass to celebrate the 1,050th anniversary of Poland becoming a Christian nation, the Pope said those who embrace their own littleness become the “spokespersons” of God. He also spoke about how God saves us by making himself not only little, but also “near and real” — all attributes found in the life of Mary, the Mother of God. While incensing the altar, the Pope stumbled and fell to the ground, but he quickly got up and carried on without any problem.

That evening, July 28, the Pope attended his first World Youth Day event in Krakow: a welcoming ceremony for him in Jordan Park, Błonia. In his discourse, he urged young people to oppose those who say things can never change and encouraged them instead to pursue an "adventure of mercy."

Speaking off the cuff, he asked the crowd of some 500,000 young pilgrims: “Can things change?” The youth exclaimed: “Yes!” He warned the young people not to opt for “early retirement,” to “throw in the towel” before the game of life has begun, and urged them to turn to Christ instead, who alone can offer a “lasting sense of life and fulfillment.” Again speaking off the cuff, he encouraged young people to keep on getting up after they fall, to listen to the wisdom of their grandparents and to launch themselves “on the adventure of mercy” that builds bridges and tears down walls.

The Pope arrived at the ceremony, filled with dancing and music from around the world, with a group of disabled people on an ecological electric tram to the venue. The transportation was painted in the Vatican colors of white and yellow.

At another appearance at the window of the archbishop’s residence that evening, the Pope repeated advice he often gives to married couples, urging them to remember three phrases: “May I?” “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry,” adding that they should “never end the day without making peace.”

Friday was a day focused on the pain and meaning of suffering. It began with a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, where as many as 1.5 million people were murdered by the Nazis. The Pope prayed for several minutes in silence in the courtyard of the complex of Auschwitz I, and then he met a group of 10 men and women who had survived the Holocaust. Next, he entered Block 11, a brick building where prisoners were tortured, and stopped for a lengthy period of time to pray in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s cell. The prayerful visit came on the 75th anniversary of the Polish saint’s death sentence. 

The Pope was then taken by car to the Birkenau camp, about two miles away; it was the largest of the camps. The Pope silently paid homage before the row of commemorative plaques that now mark the site, walking slowly past each one, before lighting a candle and praying for a moment in silence. Afterwards, he met with a group of 25 non-Jewish men and women, so-called “Righteous Among the Nations,” who had risked their lives to save Jews from mass extermination at the hands of the Nazis.

After returning to Krakow in the afternoon, the Pope visited the Children’s University Hospital in the city. Noting today’s society is tainted by a “culture of waste,” whose victims are the “weakest and most frail,” the Pope remarked how beautiful it was to see the hospital caring for the “smallest and most needy” and urged a “culture of acceptance” inspired by “Christian love.”

In the evening, the Pope led the Way of the Cross in Jordan Park and gave a discourse on suffering. After outlining the 14 works of mercy, the Pope told the young people that the Lord wants them to make a “concrete response” to the needs and sufferings of humanity. And he added that the Way of the Cross is God’s “style,” which alone “defeats sin, evil and death,” leading to Christ’s resurrection and “horizons of a new and fuller life.”

Addressing young people from the residence window that evening, the Pope reflected that it had been a “special day, a painful day.” He added that the cruelty “did not end at Auschwitz” and that today, too, “people are tortured.” He called on the young people to pray for the victims and the perpetrators, and he ended by praying a Hail Mary and giving his blessing.

On his penultimate day in Krakow, the Pope visited the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, passed through the “Door of Divine Mercy” and heard the confessions of eight young people. He also celebrated Mass with clergy, religious and seminarians in the St. John Paul II Shrine nearby, and in his homily, he emphasized the importance of reaching out to others and being disciples who have compassionate and tender hearts. He then visited the Church of St. Francis at the Franciscan monastery in Krakow, where he prayed a prayer for peace and protection from violence and from terrorism. “We entrust ourselves to the intercession of your most holy Mother,” the prayer concluded. “We ask for the gift of peace and of the elimination from our midst of the sore of terrorism.” He also repeated the beauty of mercy in impromptu remarks.

At the evening’s prayer vigil at Campus Misericordiae, a field purposely named for the event, the Pope urged young people to leave the comforts of what he called “sofa happiness” and, with Jesus’ help, put on “walking shoes” to make a mark on history. He also said multiculturalism should be seen as an “opportunity” and “not a threat.”

“God hopes in you. ... With you, the world can be different,” he also said.

Organizers said 1.6 million people attended the event.

At the final Mass the following day, attended by an estimated 1.5 million pilgrims, the Pope advised young people on how to meet Jesus, saying that, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, they need to aim high, overcome a paralysis of shame and be courageous in responding to the critics of the Gospel. He reminded the youth that “Jesus calls you by name,” assuring them, “He loves all of us with a special love; for him, all of us are important: You are important! In his eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.”

Just before leaving, the Pope made one final appearance from the window of the archbishop’s residence.

“Thank you very much for the warm welcome of these days,” the Pope told a large crowd of young people. “Before I leave, I want to give a blessing, but I also want to ask you not to forget to pray for me! Let us pray together to the Mother of God, each in their own language,” he said.

Security was tightly controlled, and many attendees were struck by how calm and well behaved the crowds were. Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Saturday there were no major incidents affecting the pilgrims’ safety, and the number of incidents reported was actually 10 times less than the last World Youth Day in Poland, in Czestochowa in 1991.

Cardinal Dziwisz praised the young people for “meeting in an atmosphere of kindness,” adding that the language they used was “that of the Gospel, the language of love.” He said you can see in them that they want to “introduce a different spirit, a spirit of peace, solidarity, mutual kindness.” The Holy Father “helped in this,” he said, and the world saw Poland as “a cultural, open and friendly country.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He was in Krakow, Poland, to cover World Youth Day.