He shared that their journey home must involve remembering and understanding where we come from. On this journey, each of us must embrace “the memory of my people, my family, my whole history … Memory of the path I have taken, memory of everything I have received from those who have gone before me.”
The return journey from every pilgrimage involves this grateful recollection of all that one experienced. It likewise includes courageously sharing stories about the moments of grace with all those who prayed for and supported the trip, as well as with those who could not go.
Each of us came on pilgrimage to Poland with various intentions, yet we each encountered the same spiritual geography of Kraków — the city of saints — whose very streets, churches and holy tombs inspired young Karol Wojtyła. While praying before these same holy relics and miraculous images and walking in these same squares, the future St. John Paul II discerned God’s will for his life: “I could have been arrested any day, at home, in the stone quarry, in the plant, and taken away to a concentration camp. Sometimes I would ask myself: so many young people of my own age are losing their lives, why not me?” (Gift and Mystery, 36).
Pope Francis asked us a similar question at the Mercy Centre, saying, “If I am hope for the future and I have memory of the past, then what about the present? What must I do in the present? Have courage, be strong, don’t be afraid. … [have] the courage to face things and the courage to keep fighting even in the worst of conditions … Courage. Bravery. Courage.”
The courage Pope Francis spoke about was clearly obvious there at the Mercy Centre, which served as the international catechesis and youth festival site for English-speaking pilgrims. Two moments stand out for me. The first occurred shortly after I heard Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq, speak to a packed arena about the persecution of Christians. That same day, we hosted the “Night of Mercy,” during which the Eucharistic Lord Jesus was processed through the same arena as more than 20,000 young people prayed on their knees and various Contemporary Christian musicians sang and praised the Lord. It was then I encountered a group of Iraqi pilgrims proudly waving their country’s flag. One of the young Iraqi woman joyfully handed me a card that read: “We are N. And we are praying for you.”
The second moment that stands out happened a short while later, when I ran into someone I already knew: an American member of the Cenacolo Community, an international group that helps young people who suffer from addictions. I had met her previously in Florida, and it was she who first told me about the community’s charism, that of experiencing God’s mercy through freedom from addiction. This conversation impressed me so much that I knew the community needed to be invited to the Mercy Centre to share their story. When I saw her there at the Centre, I realized then the power of our previous encounter — not only did Cenacolo come to the Mercy Centre, but they were able to perform their incredible passion play, Credo: I Believe in Mercy, on an outdoor stage in front of 10,000 pilgrims.
These WYD encounters — seen in the light of faith — are each a moment “which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction,” like those encounters that Benedict XVI wrote about in Deus Caritas Est (1). Karol Wojtyła too experienced such events of decisive direction. Seeing that the best leaders of his own generation had laid down their lives in the face of the Nazi occupation, Karol Wojtyła came to the decision of making a sincere gift of his life, by following Christ’s call to the priesthood.
Having experienced personally the Mercy of God, which was revealed on the Cross and witnessed to by the saints of Krakow, each pilgrim returning from WYD is called to make a similar sincere gift of self and live in true freedom as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Discipleship often needs a sphere or zone of freedom — like that seen in the Cenacolo Community or the solidarity experienced by the group of Iraqi pilgrims on the Night of Mercy — through which one can follow God. Pope Francis often reminds us that “we are not saved alone.” To create such spheres, we each must give of ourselves. It’s not binding or restricting to do this. In fact, giving of oneself for the sake of the good of others (the gift of self) is a true use of one’s freedom, one that is necessary for discipleship today. Karol Wojtyła found the freedom to follow God’s invitation through such spheres, those of the Living Word Theatre and Living Rosary groups formed during the Nazi occupation.
Faced with a lack of religious freedom, Father and later Bishop Wojtyla sought to create other “spheres of freedom” with his students by hiking and canoeing with them during the times of communist totalitarianism. “We were never more ourselves than when we were with him,” was a refrain they often recalled. Later as pope, John Paul II founded World Youth Day as a means to inspire solidarity among the youth of the Church despite the prevailing sense of moral relativism, indifferentism and the apathetic spirit of the world. And it does inspire much solidarity — most youth who attend come away with the same response: “we are not alone.”
Now that we’re home from WYD, we must do our part in creating these same spheres of freedom. To do this, we must ask ourselves: whom did I meet on this path of mercy? What can I now verify about my life? Where is God’s grace active in my life? Where am I called to act with courage, bravery and trust? Have I given this witness to others?
These answers begin to form part of my response in gratitude and thanksgiving that I am not alone, that God has touched my life.