Pilgrims, estimated in the millions, cheered the pope’s call to serve others, not be 'couch potatoes'
In his inaugural homily in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 22, 1978, Pope St. John Paul II urged the world to “open wide the doors for Christ!” He would go on to repeat that plea throughout his 26-year papacy.
This week, in the homeland of John Paul II, Pope Francis used the events of World Youth Day as a platform to echo that call anew, both in tribute to the nation’s beloved saint but also intent on reframing current political and religious debates in a divided Europe.
Prior to his arrival, there was much speculation as to what extent Pope Francis would push the issue of immigration in a country where both leaders of Church and state have been hesitant to heed his call to welcome refugees fleeing the Middle East.
Yet from the moment he touched down in Poland, Francis preached a message of openness — both in matters of faith and migration. During his welcoming ceremony at Wawel Castle, Francis encouraged the Polish nation to embrace “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 revisited this message in various ways throughout his five-day visit, as he directly tied the World Youth Day theme of “Blessed are the merciful” to a willingness to open hearts and borders to those in need, be it in Poland or in the peripheries of our own communities.
“People may judge you to be dreamers, because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded,” he told the crowd at the final Mass.
'Millions of young people'
Since 1986, World Youth Day has been celebrated every two to three years in a different city (Rome has played host twice) and has become not just the Catholic Church’s largest event but the largest gathering of people in the world. Krakow 2016 proved no exception, with numbers swelling to an estimated 2 1/2 to 3 million for the final Mass according to a World Youth Day spokeswoman.
The weeklong festival brought together young people from 187 countries for catechesis, athletic and cultural events, and liturgies. The apex of the event was the Saturday overnight vigil and Sunday Mass with the pope, which required a 10-mile hike on the part of most pilgrims.
“Seeing the millions of young people from every continent bowed in prayer, who could doubt the vitality of the universal Church?” asked Brother Samuel Burke, a World Youth Day pilgrim from Oxford, England.
Nearly 100 bishops and more than 40,000 pilgrims attended from every state in the United States, making it the third largest World Youth Day delegation in U.S. history and the largest outside of North America.
Somber and celebratory
While World Youth Days are marked by an atmosphere of celebration, the gruesome murder of Father Jacques Hamel in France on the eve of World Youth Day cast a shadow over the event’s start. Such a tragedy, however, gave particular resonance to the theme of sacrifice that the Holy Father revisited throughout the week.
Pope Francis also used his first visit to Poland to pay tribute to the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he met with 12 survivors of the concentration camps and prayed in the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger in the camp. While he spoke no words during the visit, the message was clear: Mercy and suffering are inevitably linked, and it is only through faith that we are provided hope.
Yet there were also lighthearted moments throughout the week that captured the sheer joy of the occasion. Pope Francis’ spontaneous invitation to six young people to accompany him in the popemobile prior to the Saturday vigil and the young girl accompanying her parents to deliver the gifts for the final Mass who reached up her arms and received a warm papal embrace will doubtlessly be remembered as some of the most iconic moments of the event.
The final send-off event in the Tauron Arena was a bittersweet occasion where Pope Francis thanked the volunteers for their service, many of whom dedicated a year or longer to prepare for the event.
“My own experience at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 forever changed the way I see the world and my place in it,” said Jamie Lynn Black, who volunteered on the international communications team. “It’s been a real honor and joy to help other young people encounter our faith through another World Youth Day.”
In keeping with his style, Francis abandoned his five pages of closing remarks at the volunteer send-off and switched over to Spanish so he could speak from the heart. His words were frequently interrupted by chants of “Papa Francesco” from the young people who had given so much of their time and energy these past months and were not ready for the event come to a close.
In keeping with World Youth Day tradition, Pope Francis announced at close of the final Mass the location of the next World Youth Day, which will take place in Panama in 2019. At a news conference following the announcement, Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán said he hoped in the same way the country’s famed canal connected different parts of the world in new ways, that this event would produce a similar result.
Before leaving Krakow, Francis told the young people present that he did not know whether he would be in Panama but that Peter would be. And with that, he offered a final reminder that World Youth Day is not a cult of personality but rather a sign of continuity of the universal Church, regardless of who holds the office of pope.
While some critics may seek to dismiss World Youth Day as a “Catholic Woodstock” or one large party for wealthy Catholics, the week’s events were a reminder of Pope Benedict XVI’s words that it is a “long exterior and interior path” — indeed, a pilgrimage. Though there was much fun to be had, the pope consistently sought to challenge the young people present, pleading with them not to be “couch potatoes” and not to live “halfway lives.”
“Mercy always has a youthful face! Because a merciful heart is motivated to move beyond its comfort zone. A merciful heart can go out and meet others; it is ready to embrace everyone,” he said at the July 28 welcoming ceremony in Blonia Park.
With this, Pope Francis memorably tied together both the events of World Youth Day with his aspirations for the nation of Poland and the rest of the world: to soften their hearts and not to be frightened by the unfamiliar, but to embrace fraternity.
Like Pope St. John Paul II before him, he encouraged young people on the final day, saying “Do not be afraid.” Looking past the current leaders of the Church or civil society, he aimed to shape the future. If the roaring crowds that consistently met him throughout the week are any indication, he had a welcome audience ready to accept that call.