Reflection on World Youth Day

August 10, 2016 / By: Katy Goerke, Office for Spirituality Graduate Assistant

About World Youth Day:

The first thing about WYD is that no one really knows about WYD, even among Catholic circles. Put simply it is a youth-centered pilgrimage to a different spot every three years. All of the young and young at heart, are invited to attend five days of intense Catholic Christian living, events include daily mass, catechesis (faith formation), and cultural events. There is singing and dancing in the streets. Generally, the only cultural clash occurs when the Italians and the Spanish try to chant the Pope's name Fran-che-sco or Fran-sis-co. Or when the western church forgets that they should remain standing for the orthodox (eastern church) gospel as well. WYD is like the Olympics, where no one cheats because everybody gets the gold, mixed with your favorite music festival. Catholic Memes has referred to it as a drug-free Woodstock.

These utopian images, do not mean that everything was perfect. WYD is, first of all, a pilgrimage, which is an arduous journey taken to a place of religious significance for the purpose of getting closer to God. This is distinct from a vacation, where the primary purpose is relaxation or a retreat where the means of getting closer to God is to get away from the hustle of the world. A pilgrimage takes the pilgrim by the hardest road through the world but with eyes focused on the goal, the inconveniences of the trip make the prayer more fervent. For example, choosing to walk to the Shrine of Divine Mercy from the city center was a mini pilgrimage on our greater journey. You could take a mini pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Saint Paul from St. Thomas.

Definitions are very important, not just because as a law student I can spend all day on definitions, but because even in the most basic conversation knowing what the other means is what is important. For example: at closing mass a few girls and I had gotten separated from our group. After explaining that we needed to get to A14 to a volunteer, who allegedly spoke English, his response with a confused look, was “You want alcohol?”

Many problems were the expected type that arise when you and 2 million of your closest friends go out for a weekend; really long lines everywhere, trouble finding food, and overcrowded trams when we took public transportation. Others were unexpected inconveniences, such as when a priest got lost, and upon entering our hostel insisted that his key for room 220 was broken, and that they needed to call a lock smith. The hostel did, so despite the priest soon realizing his error and being directed to his real hostel, where his key worked fine, everyone on the second floor got to stay up until 1 o’clock in the morning while the lock smith, installed a new lock.

My Time at World Youth Day: Days in Diocese

Before Krakow, there was Warszawa where we stayed for five days with a host parish that gave us food, shelter, cultural activities, and food lots of food. My host mom warmly welcomed me, at midnight, with a steaming hot bowl of borscht, and perogies. At that point I was so tired that the only thing keeping me from falling asleep in my soup was my hunger. As we explored the city, we were given, at least, three huge meals every day.

In WWII the Nazis completely destroyed Warszawa, leveling the city. The movie The Pianist gives a taste of the devastation. Then it was followed by the Communist suppression, making Poland a “2nd World Nation.” On the list of Europe must sees Poland and Warszawa is often overlooked. So I was amazed and impressed with the resiliency that Warszawa had coming back. The sun shown brightly over both new and historic buildings, rebuilt in the 1960s using original methods. They had beautiful parks and museums full of art and music. Also the square where Saint John Paul II said his first mass in Poland, where thousands of people began to chant "We want God!" This event was the beginning of the peaceful Polish revolution, since the Communists didn't have a prayer. Overused pun, I know. Finally, the people were so happy and hospitable, opening up the city to pilgrims and letting us enjoy it.

Besides getting to know Warszawa, we began to get to know our fellow pilgrims. Our parish hosted four groups, totaling one hundred pilgrims. The diocese as a whole hosted about a thousand from around the world. On a Saturday afternoon we gathered in field for a concert, cultural exhibitions, and mass. During the concert, under the hot sun someone began to play catch with a holey bag of water that sprayed the players keeping them cool. Soon pilgrims from China and USA were playing an epic game of pig in the middle. There were no formal rules, just natural sportsmanship and cultural chivalry that kept the game competitive but not crazy intense. We danced Belgium and Polish folk dances, prayed with pilgrims from Palestine for peace, and laughed with the French at their silly song and dance. This fraternity was just a taste of what was awaiting us Krakow.

My Time at World Youth Day: The Longest Day

We drove from Warszawa to Krakow, stopping to visit Our Lady of Czestahova, the pre-eminent pilgrimage site for Poland. “We” included my group, a French military academy, and chaplains from all of the NATO forces, these were just the ones who reserved the chapel with the icon for mass at 2 o’clock. The chapel sat maybe forty, so most people had to stand as countless of other pilgrims shuffled past to get a glimpse of Our Lady. Meanwhile about 3 thousand Spaniards had mass on the steps outside.

Our first day in Krakow we visited the Shrine of Divine Mercy, set in between the convent where St. Faustina saw Jesus in visions speaking of his love and mercy, and the quarry where Saint John Paul II worked, before he became a priest. This was even crazier than Our Lady of Czestahova, this year is the Year of Divine Mercy in the church so this hill top is the epicenter of Mercy, and everyone wanted to see everything. That night was opening mass, said by Bishop Stanislaus, who was the personal aid to Saint John Paul II in his pontificate. The vastness of the park was such that you could see people clapping on the screens but not hear or see them. It took us four hours to catch a train back to our hostel, and even then we were crammed like sardines.

The second day we spent in Mercy Centre, which housed English language catechesis. Here the varsity team of USA Catholic speakers instructed thousands. The Everts talked about chastity, Chris Stefanik emceed, Bishop Baron led adoration and Mat Mahr played a concert. It was like watching my favorite movie for the twentieth time, but still finding new insights and crying at the end (adoration does that). But there were also all of these British, Canadian, Australian, Irish, and Welsh youth there. Which was like finding out that all of your neighbors love your favorite movie, even though they had never seen it before. 

Third day, we visited the Dominican head house in Krakow, where the relics of Bl. Pierre Giorgio Frassatti were brought for veneration. I had the pleasure of being told Frassatti’s story by a young Italian man who is a vocal advocate for Frassatti’s canonization. The man told me about how Frassatti was just an average Catholic college student, he liked to hang out with friends, and explore the mountains. But what made Frassatti exceptional was his great love of the sacraments, especially communion, and serving the poor. From his service to the poor Frassatti contracted smallpox and died young, but more importantly he died smiling. His funeral was attended by hundreds of the poor who he had helped in his community, his life is a true testament to the power just one young person has, if they are brave enough to use it.

Then the Pope arrived which was incredible. He was probably the only person in Krakow that whole week who did not have to fight for a seat on the tram. He talked about how it was time for the youth to change the world, even if the road was hard.

 He also talked about how sad it is when youth "retire" at age 23 or 24. When youth accept the status quo, or simply stop working for change makes Pope Francis sad. Don't make Pope Francis sad! He also added how important it was that we listen to our grandparent's wisdom. I was challenged by this, because I love my grandparents but often find them quite silly. From the nervous looks on everyone's faces, I could tell that I was not the only one.

On Friday, Bishop Cozzens and his friend Fr. Whilhelm gave us a tour of the city. Krakow lives with vivid memories of past wars engraved in its very stones. The Basilica of Saint Mary’s on the town square, plays a bugle salute every hour in memory of a young boy who climbed the tower to sound out warning of a Tartar attack in the Middle Ages. He was shot by an arrow half-way through a note, so the salute always remains unfinished. Though Krakow was not flattened by the Nazis, it still received its scars, the altar piece of the Basilica was raided by the Nazis, but returned by the Monuments Men at the end of the war.

Saturday we made our walk to Campus Misercordia, the Field of Mercy. On the way, we faced the worse crowds ever. One boy got cut off from our group by, in his words, an French invasion, and could not catch up till he was rescued by some passing Australians, who understanding his language could better understand his plight. For him, this was his most memorable moment of the Pilgrimage, as he was touched by their charity.

When we finally arrived at our spot, we discovered that we had chosen poorly in skipping the free food lines, as there was nothing available on the field. Not deterred, two other young women and I set out on an epic quest for food, and after four hours, two miles, and far too long in a frenzy that was a bizarre non-violent cross between Les Miserables (there were barricades) and The Hunger Games we returned with three bags of food that tided us and our group over until extra supplies could be found later that night.

Due to this quest, we unfortunately missed Pope Francis' request that the youth of today get off the couch and put on their cleats to become the A-team of Catholics he knows we can be. I suppose since that was his message, my friends and I could be excused from missing that part. But we were not immune from his call for all peoples to reach out and build the simplest bridge possible, to take each other's hands. Two Nigerian boys, stopped us on our way back, and shook our hands. Such a simple act was purely extraordinary to us because they were the only people to stop us and not ask where we had gotten food. Truly wanting to be with a person not for what they have but for who they are strikes a bond so deep that I will always remember that moment.

Saturday night we slept out under the stars. Despite sharing the space with about 2 million others, and a military guard that was reminiscent of the Blues Brothers, complete with helicopters, I felt at peace. Over my head, the clouds opened to show Cassiopeia, my favorite constellation because it is the only constellation I can fully find without help. Like Frassatti, and John Paul II, I love the wild and can sleep on the ground without complaint.

Sunday came with lots of sun. Mass was intense not just sacramentally but also elementally. Many pilgrims fell victim to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, as I write this I am still nursing my sun burn. But during the mass I barely noticed, Pope Francis preached the Zacheus story and the importance of letting Jesus into our hearts and homes. I was struck how often I’ve heard that story used for social justice means, since at the Zacheus, righteously, gives his riches to the poor, but Pope Francis the social justice pope did not mention it at all. Therefore, I figure that while remembering those in need is always important, what is more important is that we remember to invite Jesus into our lives. Since, as in the story, if Zacheus had not hosted Jesus he would not have remembered the poor.

Leaving Sunday mass was memorable, two million people even those bound by fraternity and love, do not disperse easily. My group waited for an hour before leaving and even then the crowd was thick. We would have waited longer but the long anticipated clouds bearing rain and thunder struck the field and we had to pack up before we were blown away. On this sodden walk back, I was able to speak with a girl from Antioch Turkey. Since my Dad was raised, partially, in Turkey I have always kept my eye out for it on the news and recently the news has not been good. When I asked her about this she shrugged and said that everything was fine in Antioch. This struck me when I realized that I could not say the same for my own home town. Even realizing that this girl and I might have strikingly different definitions of the word “fine.”  When we reached the hostel, my group gladly jumped into the showers, and then to bed.

Judaism and WYD

While WYD is centered around preaching and teaching the catholic Christian faith, one does not simply go to Poland and forget about the suffering of Jews. Our first day in Warsaw, my group visited the Jewish Mueseum, that also encapsulated the entirety of Polish history. For the fates of Jews, Christians, and Poland are closely intertwined. For example in Warsaw the Ghetto uprising and swift destruction, prefigured the whole city’s uprising and swift destruction. We also found the marking of the Nazi Ghetto Wall not far from the modern city center.

In Krakow, we did not have the time to visit the old ghetto though we did talk about how erry it was when the war ended and no one was left to live in those homes. There were exhibits set up around the city that spoke of the Holocaust, and the horror it brought to city. Also, we constantly talked of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Aushwitz because he volunteered to take the place of a Jewish man in a starvation chamber. That man was present at the mass where Kolbe was canonized.

On the day I left Poland, my group visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. So while I cannot report on that I do know that, moved by all that they had seen and heard many youth were already moved to tears at the mere thought of that place.


Now the question remains: was it worth it? I’ve spoken of a trip where we encountered many hardships and sadness, but also unprecedented joy. When a friend texted me wishing that I have a good time, I responded that I must be happy because I was no longer battling misery. Not to be melodramatic but it is a well documented phenomenon that law students battle misery, some fair better than others. While I had weathered the storm and would say that my first year of law school was good, it had been so long since I was truly, unquestionably, naturally happy. Reconnecting with Jesus at WYD made me so simply happy, that I must say that it was worth it.

As for the next one, conveniently located in our own time zone, Panama, I am not sure if I can go. But I am certain that if you have the opportunity you should go.