One year ago, Pope Francis encouraged an estimated two million young pilgrims gathered outside Krakow, Poland from all corners of the world to “get off the couch” and begin their adult lives as brave, tenacious Catholic young adults unafraid of new challenges. In the year that has since passed since Krakow’s World Youth Day celebration, many young Polish Catholics have responded to the Holy Father’s challenge. Across Poland, many initiatives and communities dedicated to evangelization and works of mercy have blossomed as a result of World Youth Day.
Wherever World Youth Day has been held, it has been a blessing for the local Church. According to Anthony Fisher, OP, archbishop of Sydney, before World Youth Day was held in the Australian capital in 2008, there were about 30 or 40 youth groups in his diocese. By last year, that number had mushroomed to 200. A similar dynamic is now being seen in Poland as well. This is an encouraging trend, as a 2015 study by Poland’s Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny) has shown that young Poles are not immune to secularizing influences. The survey revealed that while 49.4 percent of Poles overall attend Mass at least once a week, among those aged 16-24 that percentage dips down to 40 percent (interestingly, the rate of weekly attendance is lower among slightly older young adults, those aged 25-34, at 35.6 percent).
According to Father Emil Parafiniuk, the head of the National Youth Ministry (Krajowe Duszpasterstwo Młodzieży) and director of the World Youth Day office in Poland, last year’s edition of WYD has increased young Polish Catholics’ interest in attending the event in the future. The WYD office estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 pilgrims and 100 to 200 volunteers from Poland will attend WYD 2019 in Panama, even though a trans-Atlantic voyage is a huge cost for most Poles and the event will be held in January, when school is in session and Polish university students have finals. By comparison, the last time WYD was held in Latin America—in Brazil in the summer of 2013 – only 1,300 Polish pilgrims attended. A website has been launched to collect donations to help Polish pilgrims cover the costs of traveling to Panama.
Meanwhile, many young participants in last year’s event have taken the initiative and founded groups for prayer or charitable work in their parishes. For example, Ewa Korbut, who worked at the WYD press office last year, says that in her parish on the outskirts of Krakow a large, vibrant group of young people have gathered with the specific goal of cultivating the spiritual fruits of WYD 2016. In Krakow, some noteworthy efforts include the Pan AMA community, which meets once a month at St. Mary’s Basilica in the city’s main square to study the catechesis from previous editions of WYD and to prepare for Panama 2019; there is also Góra Dobra (“The Mountain of Good”), a community of former WYD volunteers who engage in corporal works of mercy.
In addition to these activities on the part of young pilgrims, the organizers of WYD and Poland’s bishops have organized numerous initiatives for young people to keep the spirit of WYD alive. The Polish Episcopal Conference has created a program called #ZEJDŹZKANAPY (“#GETOFFTHECOUCH”) for the formation of youths during 2017. Each month since the first Sunday of Advent last year, the National Youth Ministry has published supplemental materials for priests involved in youth ministry. Each month’s supplements focus around a quote from Sacred Scripture, Pope Francis’ words directed towards young people, and the YouCat (the abridged version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church edited specifically for young readers and prepared for WYD 2011 in Madrid) for discussion and meditation in groups.
Meanwhile, a series of seven retreats titled Ogień dla nas i całego świata (“A Fire for Us and the World”), devoted to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, were held one Saturday a month between November 2016 and May 2017 at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Krakow-Lagiewniki. These retreats were intended to be a continuation of WYD and each consisted of a discussion by a guest, Mass, the presentation of a local community dedicated to prayer or works of mercy, and a prayer vigil. The guests were Bishop Edward Dajczak, the bishop of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg, who is a pioneer of new evangelization in Poland; Bishop Grzegorz Ryś, the popular, intellectual auxiliary archbishop of Krakow known for reaching out to young people and non-believers; Brothers Marek and John of the Taize community; Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the charismatic archbishop of Manila and president of Caritas Internationalis; Father Mario Corniolli, an Italian missionary who ministers to (mostly Palestinian) Christians in the conflict-torn Holy Land; Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the youthful primate of Poland and archbishop of Gniezno; and Michelle Moran, president of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. According to Ewa Korbut, between 1,000 and 2,000 people attended each retreat.
During a recent meeting with Catholic university students, Bishop Ryś was asked if these post-WYD retreats would continue to be held in coming years. He answered that the Krakow archdiocese does plan on continuing organizing them, although it is uncertain what their formula would be. He hinted that the next edition of the retreats will be related to the 2018 Synod of Bishops, which will deal with youth and vocations.
The retreats were not the only events organized in Krakow that revived the atmosphere of WYD. In March 2017 the Młodzi i Miłosierdzie (“The Young and Mercy”) retreat was held in Krakow’s Tauron Arena. There, 18,000 Polish teenagers listened to a catechesis by Bishop Ryś and to live Christian music.
In late July, thousands of young people came to Krakow to celebrate the first anniversary of WYD 2016. On Friday night, a praise and worship event was held at Campus Misericordiae in Brzegi, the site of the Mass closing WYD last year. Thousands of young pilgrims prayed, adored the Eucharist, and listened to Catholic bands playing songs such as “Błogosławieni miłosierni” (“Blessed and Merciful”), the official hymn of last year’s WYD.
The next day, Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski, who in January replaced Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz as archbishop of Krakow, gave a catechesis to young people who filled the pews in the Piarist church on Meissner Street. Archbishop Jędraszewski recalled Pope Francis’ summons to “get off the couch,” noting that God is love and for us to truly experience love in our relationships with both God and our brothers and sisters we have to shun a life of comfort. He also spoke of the importance of Sunday as much more than a day when we simply go to Mass so we can tick it off our list of chores.
Youth ministry hasn’t been rejuvenated only in Krakow. In Wroclaw, WYD inspired a “Youth Sunday” held in Ostrów Tumski, the island where the cathedral is located, on Palm Sunday. During the event, thousands of young Catholics attended Mass and confession, adored the Holy Sacrament, and watched a play depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Wroclaw’s Archbishop Jozef Kupny has decided to make Ślęża Mountain, the site of an old church that was recently reopened after years of disuse, a “Mount Tabor for the young,” a place where youth ministry events will be periodically held for young Catholics from across the diocese. Last fall, about 1,500 young Catholics gathered on the mountain to pray, adore the Eucharist, and listen to live music. The organizers of this event want to hold more editions in coming years. Similar youth festivals have been organized in Lodz and Zielona Gora, among other Polish dioceses.
Of course, it is much too early to be able to have a complete view of the impact of last year’s edition of WYD. The renewal in the American Church, for example, that came about as a result of WYD 1993 in Denver became apparent only after the passage of several years. However, it is clear that many young Polish Catholics are “getting off the couch.” They are unafraid of publicly manifesting their faith and are living proof that it is possible to be modern and Catholic. While many WYD-inspired events in Poland feature novelties such as rapping priests, at their heart are Eucharistic adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation, and the corporal works of mercy. It’s becoming clear that WYD was a necessary jolt of energy for youth ministry in Poland. As Europe grows increasingly secular, Poland’s emerging WYD generation is a source of hope.
Many have wondered what, if anything, from WYD 2016 will remain in the hearts and souls of those who attended. Undoubtedly, those who participated last year who are still very active in the life of the Church are a minority. However, this minority is increasingly a vital force in Poland. As Ewa Korbut says: “If only 1/800th of what we saw last year will remain in the participants of World Youth Day, that will in itself be a great thing.”