“A pilgrimage is for transformation.” Those words, gleaned from a pilgrim manual I received from my college spiritual director, capture the essence of my journey to Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day. Nearly a month has passed since World Youth Day concluded, but the memories, experiences, and spiritual lessons remain vivid and fresh. And that is how it should be, for if a pilgrimage is for transformation, its impact should endure, rippling outward to elevate lives beyond that of the pilgrim himself.
I made the pilgrimage last month with my one of my best friends from college. He and I graduated in May and had roomed and run cross-country and track together for four years. My journey to World Youth Day was a graduation gift from my parents, one to which I had been looking forward for quite some time. In fact, it had been in my sights since the end of the previous summer, when I had studied in Krakow at the Tertio Millennio Seminar led by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and George Weigel. Having shared with my friend many stories from the previous summer about the beauty and rich spiritual heritage of Poland, I invited him to join me at World Youth Day, and our plans were booked.
We knew we were in for a special experience, but neither of us had been on a pilgrimage before or had a clear idea of what lay ahead. The pilgrim manual had explained that whereas vacations are escapes from reality—opportunities for rest or adventure—a pilgrimage is an encounter with the depths and fullness of reality, an encounter through which we should be transformed.
Of all of the words one could use to describe last month’s gathering of three million youth hailing from 187 countries, the most apt would be joy. From beginning to end, the week was filled with a profound and persistent experience of joy. Pilgrims from all over smiled, chanted, laughed, and waved their countries’ flags, all rejoicing in the splendor of the occasion.
The eyes of the world might have mistaken World Youth Day for the World Cup or Olympic Games: arrays of cultural, national, and ethnic diversity unified by a common cause. But those events are, at the end of the day, predominantly opportunities for countries to demonstrate national superiority through competition. World Youth Day has no teams or competitions. Though pilgrims differ in just about every accidental characteristic, from nationality and tongue to race, ethnicity, and culture, all share in the pursuit of the unum necesarium, that one thing necessary in life: friendship with Jesus Christ.
The enthusiasm at World Youth Day is born not of a competitive national pride but of an abiding communal joy. Pilgrims from those 187 countries proclaim happily that, yes, in my home, too, the Church is alive, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls. That combination of unity and joy revealed—as I had never before experienced—the transformative power of the Church when it vigorously and publicly bears witness to the Gospel.
An eloquent rebuttal of the “culture of me”
Two moments at World Youth Day illustrate the spirit and power of the experience—the first occurred the evening prior to the papal opening ceremonies, and the second was the vigil and concluding Mass. They were bookends to an extraordinary pilgrimage that inspired and edified me and announced to an increasingly secular, materialist world that God is alive and well.
Tauron Arena, a major multipurpose athletic arena on the outskirts of Krakow, had been rented by the Knights of Columbus and renamed the “Mercy Centre.” It served as the main catechesis site for English-speaking pilgrims of all nationalities. The Sisters of Life, College Knights of Columbus, and Dominicans from the Polish and US Eastern Provinces, among others, coordinated and conducted an extensive array of events, the headliner of which was the “Mercy Night Festival” held just before World Youth Day began.
That night, the arena was packed, floor to ceiling, with more than 20,000 English-speaking pilgrims from Australia, Canada, the US and UK, and many other places. Several thousand more waited outside, unable to enter because of fire-code restrictions. The atmosphere was mystical, incomparable to any other experience I have had in any other arena or gathering. And that includes an unforgettable night in Cameron Indoor Stadium watching, with thousands of other Duke students, our team win the 2015 NCAA national basketball championship.
The climax of “Mercy Night” was a Eucharistic procession, during which an impressive, cruciform monstrance moved throughout the arena floor, accompanied by several priests and Bishop Robert Barron. As soon as the Eucharist first emerged from a tunnel at the bottom of the arena, 20,000-plus pilgrims, unfazed by the concrete floor, dropped to their knees to venerate the Lord. Matt Maher, an accomplished Catholic contemporary musician, played a signature worship song. When the Eucharist approached the altar-stage, Maher himself kneeled while continuing to play his guitar and sing—the ultimate rebuttal to the “culture of me” that dominates the pop entertainment industry.
Adding to the magnificence of the event, the contemporary worship song was followed by Audrey Assad singing Saint Thomas Aquinas’ beautiful Eucharistic hymn, “O Salutaris Hostia,” as the Blessed Sacrament was formally exposed. Indeed, that remarkable transition exhibited the Church’s dynamism in service to the truth: on the one hand, she is nimble and apt in engaging the contemporary culture and, on the other, timeless and reverent in her tradition.
Bishop Barron then preached a powerful reflection on the meaning of the Cross, Divine Mercy, and the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed by ISIS terrorists the previous day. By night’s end, not a single soul in that arena left untouched by the Eucharistic Lord.
The Mercy Night Festival foreshadowed the tone of the entire week, which culminated in Saturday’s all-night vigil and the concluding Mass on Sunday morning. Roughly three million people—a number that is hard to grasp without experiencing the seemingly endless breadth of the assembly—walked nine miles from central Krakow to Campus Misericordie (the Field of Mercy), the site of the final Mass. Major roads and highways were closed and lined with police and military personnel providing water and encouragement to pilgrims, who waved flags, sang, and prayed rosaries along the way.
Upon arrival at the sprawling Field of Mercy, my friend and I found ourselves amidst a sea of pilgrims, all on our knees holding candles we had lit from each other’s, unified before the exposed Eucharist that rested on the altar about a half-mile away from our area. Millions of members of the Mystical Body of Christ had gathered before the Lord in silence as the sun set in the background. The scene projected a palpable serenity and humility.
Later, as evening surrendered to nightfall, chants and songs continued in many corners, while in others, pilgrims shared their backgrounds, cultures, and spiritual journeys. In one sector, a military hospitality tent was converted into an outdoor adoration chapel, where priests heard confessions through the night.
And if any residual doubts remained about the Holy Spirit’s work throughout the week, the Lord vanquished them once and for all: the forecasts for the final Mass had called for steady rain, but not a cloud was in the sky. The liturgy was solemn and reverent, rightly praising God whom we had come to worship. Receiving the Eucharist with three million pilgrims from around the world, including from persecuted regions like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the Holy Land, embodied sacramental communion not only with Christ but also among my beloved fellow pilgrims.
Both of those events—and the many others in between them—invited numerous young people into a deep encounter with the mystery of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In Krakow, those four essential dimensions of the Church were fully alive, radiating the supernatural joy of life in Christ.
We were one, sharing in the same creed, the same raison d’etre, the same purpose, so much so that Catholics from Israel and Palestine shared their faith and socialized together. We were sanctified through sacramental grace, and we venerated the many Polish men and women whom God has made holy saints, from Saint Stanislaw to Saints Faustina Kowalska, Edith Stein, and Maximilian Kolbe, to Saint John Paul the Great. We were catholic, showing the world that only one, truly global religion exists. And we were apostolic, accompanied by hundreds of priests, religious, and bishops, and, of course the Bishop of Rome himself, Pope Francis.
A model for engaging the secular world
Much reflection on this pilgrimage has persuaded me that World Youth Day should serve as a model for engaging the secular world. Three million young people from all corners of the Earth convened to affirm publicly that God exists, that Jesus is Lord, that objective truth is real, and that the Way, the Truth, and the Life dwells within the Catholic Church. That affirmation, accompanied by the irresistible spirit of the week, was the most formidable response to secularism that I have ever experienced. As the West becomes evermore culturally sterile, politically unstable, and existentially lost, it thirsts for the confident and resounding joy that flows abundantly from the supernatural life of the Church.
By unabashedly asserting the Church’s place in public life, World Youth Day is a vibrant testament to a world that has been transformed by the Resurrection. In Krakow, hallmark signs of worldly glory and power were elevated by supernatural grace. A marquee sports arena was recast into a Mercy Centre. A rock concert was in fact not at all a rock concert but a Eucharistic procession in which the musician, from his knees, directed all attention toward the Lord. Major highways became pilgrim pathways, and expansive public parks became places of worship. Even advertisements pointed toward eternity: “Are you ready to become a saint? Come study in Krakow like John Paul II,” read one billboard emblazoned with a huge image of the saint. All of this fueled a transformative joy that prompted Bishop Robert Barron to describe the Mercy Night Festival as “one of the most moving experiences of my 30 years as a priest” and Pope Francis to exclaim at the end of the final Mass, “John Paul II is smiling in heaven.”
Instead of receding into Christian catacombs to wait out the secular storm—a storm that will not subside until it is addressed from all sides—the New Evangelization must joyfully and publicly witness to the divine reality and the supernatural truth of Christ and his Church. By our collective and robust participation in the sanctifying life of the Church, we can become instruments of grace that infuse the materialist anthropology of secularism with spiritual life. Such was the call of Saint John Paul in Poland in 1979, when communism was starving the human person of spiritual nourishment, and such was his call at many a World Youth Day, exhorting the youth to evangelize the world.
In the United States, a revitalization is emerging. The Sisters of Life and the Dominicans of the Eastern Province are notable examples of the great renewal among religious in the United States. They and many others demonstrate by their lives and ministries that a radical life in Christ is joyful because it is oriented toward the Word, the eternal Logos, who is the vine that nourishes his branches for life here and hereafter. The College Knights of Columbus and FOCUS show the deep potential for evangelical growth on innumerable college campuses burdened by an entrenched spiritual aridity. And at the diocesan level, last year, Bishop Frank Caggiano of my home diocese of Bridgeport offered a public Mass at a local arena, with hundreds of clergy and religious, thousands of faithful, fire and police escorts, and many media outlets in attendance, to celebrate the closing of a two-year synod that charted a plan for comprehensive revival and growth.
Those initiatives—and many more like them—illumine the Church and her essential mission to engage the world and to proclaim the truth with confidence. They also further her pilgrim march toward the heavenly kingdom. In that sense, perhaps most profoundly, World Youth Day foreshadows the eternal kingdom by gathering the faithful from all ends of the Earth to rejoice in Christ Jesus. One friend reported that her group’s chaplain, reacting to the non-stop smiles, high-fives, hugs, and cheers shared among pilgrims, exclaimed, “Hey guys, this is how it will be when we greet each other at the gates of heaven!”
Indeed, we hope. But so too should it be how we greet the world now, engaging it with the joy of the Gospel, the splendor of truth, the fullness of reality. That is the life of Christ and his Mystical Body, who offer to all an invitation to experience the joy that has saved the world.