In Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for “a conversation which includes everybody” and “a new and universal solidarity.” He reminds us that, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God” (14). This bond of fellowship served as the thread that wove together the Holy Father’s message to us pilgrims at the 15th World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland in August 2016.
Pope St. John Paul the Great instituted this series of international gatherings of young Catholics the year I was born. I entered the experience in Krakow without expectation or assumption—other than, perhaps, a bit of awe mingled with skepticism at the prospect of systematically corralling, transporting, feeding and just maybe transforming one million young people in six days, all within 150 square miles. I have enough trouble trying to accomplish this with a few hundred students within the confines of my own campus day to day. However, all of this and more came to pass enabled by the guiding hand of our Loving Creator, the inestimable charisma of our beloved pope, and the inextinguishable determination of the spirit of the youth.
Prior to the start of World Youth Day, my group of college students gathered with 1,400 friends for Vincentian Youth Days in a town just outside of Krakow. Our group attended World Youth Day as the United States contingent of the Congregation of the Mission, or the Vincentians, who founded and continue to guide St. John’s University where I am a campus minister. It is through the lens of our charism of bringing the love of Christ to the poor that I began my pilgrimage. I would realize only after World Youth Day that our Superior General, the Rev. Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., perfectly described the current of hope that ran in the streets of Krakow that week, the reason we all gathered: “. . . to be engaged with new fire in following Jesus, and with Him, through Him and in Him continue to build together a better world!”
Indeed, God was at work: in the joy of the volunteers, the understanding through languages foreign to one another, the safety of the pilgrims, but, most of all, God truly and really present among us. Mercy and Love, in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, overwhelmed my first days of this gathering. It was here that along with 18,000 other English-speaking pilgrims in Tauron Arena, or the “Mercy Centre,” that, with the help of Matt Maher, Audrey Assad, and Bishop Robert Barron, Jesus came to us in a night of Eucharistic adoration. It was here that I experienced the Spirit of God bring cheers of joy to an electrified silence of worship and wonder back to the deafening roar of young people empowered and unfettered.
The Holy Father arrived in Poland the following day, and not even the persistent rain could dampen our joy at welcoming him. We’d made the air electrified the night before and I was sure his plane was carried in that voltage. Thousands huddled together in small pockets around personal radios in Błonia Park hungry for Pope Francis’s every word translated into ten languages. There had been a report that the pope had suffered a fall that morning and we worried he wouldn’t be up to the task. After some ceremony and presentations, Francis took to the microphone and addressed us like a dear grandfather reunited with his progeny, peppering his words with exclamations and enthusiastically coaxing us with his questions (which we ate up: “Yes!” “Si!” “Tak!” we shouted together.) He shared his hope for us over these days: “What better opportunity to renew our friendship with Jesus than by building friendships among yourselves! What better way to build our friendship with Jesus than by sharing him with others! What better way to experience the contagious joy of the Gospel than by striving to bring the Good News to all kinds of painful and difficult situations!”
In these days I witnessed God at work in the great compassion and sense of camaraderie that characterizes this generation of Catholic youth. Delegations passing one another on the city streets passionately cheered the names of the countries whose flags they encountered and their cheers were returned in kind. People admired and promptly gave hats, pins, and other patriotic paraphernalia to one another. And I swear we must have set some kind of world record for most high fives in a single week. I witnessed strangers help carry a pilgrim in a wheelchair for one mile over the rocky ground of Campus Misericordiae; neighbors camping out on the field of the papal mass readily offered food to someone who had misplaced his or her bag of rations; new friends took turns carrying the backpack of someone struggling to complete the 10-mile walk in the blistering heat; and upheld the conviction not to leave others behind.
World Youth Day has become a prototype for the coming together of the whole human family that Pope Francis wishes, where brothers and sisters embrace, celebrating and drawing life from diversity, where everyone has a voice, and, for this brief moment, seeks the kind of “sustainable and integral development” that effects change. For, as Francis reminds us, “Young people demand change” (ibid., 13).
The Holy Father keenly and prayerfully recounted the solidarity we experienced that week, as he commissioned us in his homily of the final Mass of World Youth Day. Acknowledging the times we think less of ourselves, undervalue our potential, allow darkness to hide us from the light of God’s love and our capacity to love, and forget humanity’s “ability to work together in building our common home” (idib., 13), Pope Francis reminded us:
God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful! . . . As he did on Pentecost, the Lord wants to work one of the greatest miracles we can experience; he wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. He wants your hands to continue building the world of today. And he wants to build that world with you. . . . Life nowadays tells us that it is much easier to concentrate on what divides us, what keeps us apart. People try to make us believe that being closed in on ourselves is the best way to keep safe from harm. Today, we adults need you to teach us, as you are doing today, how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. You are an opportunity for the future. Have the courage to teach us, have the courage to show us that it is easier to build bridges than walls! We need to learn this. Together we ask that you challenge us to take the path of fraternity.
While on this pilgrimage, I had the opportunity for a different sort of recollection and reflection when I visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, places that offered stark reminders of the worst evil human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. There I became more acutely aware that Pope Francis was calling us to build a new world because our own is scarred and broken from the work of our own hands. As I walked the haunted dirt roads of the concentration camp sites, it was the wildflowers that called me to look more closely and then to look beyond. Poland, a place that had seen some of the worst horrors of history, also had produced some of the greatest saints of the modern era. If even this scorched earth could produce beauty and devotion, then surely, I thought, the young generation can sustain the hope for a better world.