Local World Youth Day pilgrims prepare for ‘life-changing experience’

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Editor’s Note: Staff Reporter Lauren Clem will be traveling with the diocesan group from July 23-August 4 and will report on their experiences at World Youth Day, as well as the tours they will take to religious and historically significant sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

TIVERTON — Next Saturday, July 23, a large group representing the Diocese of Providence will embark on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, traveling to Krakow, Poland, to join more than one million other Catholics and our Holy Father Pope Francis in celebrating World Youth Day 2016.

The international gathering of Catholic youth, started in 1986 by St. John Paul II and held every two to three years, will offer the young people from Rhode Island an opportunity to deepen their faith as they celebrate their Catholic identity with peers from around the world.

“World Youth Days are always an exciting moment in celebrating Catholic faith,” said Louise Dussault, director of the diocesan Office of Catholic Youth Ministry. “When you gather over a million Catholics in one spot, you can’t help but experience the impact that faith in Christ as a Catholic has on the world.”

The group of 65 youth, young adults and chaperones gathered at St. Theresa Church, Tiverton, on Wednesday, June 29, to celebrate Mass and make the final preparations for their upcoming trip. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin presided at Mass and offered a special blessing over the pilgrims, many of whom will attend World Youth Day for the first time.

“It seems when you go on a trip, two questions are very important. The first one is, where are you going?” he told the pilgrims during the homily.

“The second question might give us a little more pause. The question is, why are you going? And I think it’s important to sort that out in your own heart and mind before the trip ensues.”

Bishop Tobin recounted his own experience at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.

“It was a life-changing experience. For many young people, it was the genesis of their vocation to the religious life,” he said. “Ultimately, the reason you’re going on this trip is to encounter Jesus Christ and to strengthen your friendship and discipleship with God.”

Concelebrating with Bishop Tobin were three priests who will join the diocesan delegation at World Youth Day. Father Ryan Simas, assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville; Father Scott Carpentier, associate pastor at St. Augustine Parish, Providence and Father Przemyslaw “Shemek” Lepak, pastor at St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parish, Tiverton, will travel along with pilgrims, offering spiritual and logistical support. Father Shemek, a native of Poland, has taken on a leading role, preparing liturgies and other events for the pilgrims as they travel throughout Poland and the Czech Republic.

“I believe that it’s going to be a great experience for all the travelers and a great experience for me as a priest going forward to strengthen my faith,” he said. “I’m looking forward to taking in as much as I can so I can be a better priest, better preacher and better person.”

Father Shemek expressed excitement that he will be able to travel to a World Youth Day in Poland, a place that has great religious as well as personal significance. He mentioned the role of the Polish saints, including St. John Paul II and St. Faustina, as patrons of this year’s World Youth Day.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s happening there,” said Father Shemek. “I think the Holy Spirit inspired Pope Francis.”

Among the sites pilgrims will be able to visit in Krakow is the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, which houses the remains of St. Faustina. The theme of this year’s World Youth Day, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” reflects both the location and its celebration during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

“With this theme, the Krakow 2016 World Youth Day forms part of the Holy Year of Mercy and so becomes a Youth Jubilee at world level,” wrote Pope Francis in a message to World Youth Day participants released by the Vatican last fall. “I believe that Divine Providence led us to the decision to celebrate the Youth Jubilee in that city which was home to those two great apostles of mercy in our times.”

Ensuring pilgrims’ safety, always a priority for World Youth Day organizers, has become especially important during a year in which violence has rocked some other parts of the world. According to the office of Poland’s Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslaw Zielinski, border checks have been reinstated to monitor the country’s entry points during the months of July and early August and several thousand police, medical and other first responders from multiple nations will be on hand during the event.

“I am convinced everyone will be safe during World Youth Day,” Zielinski said in a statement released in June. “Everything that was in the power of the most professionally operating services will be and practically has been prepared.”

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, shepherd of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., and World Youth Day episcopal liaison for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, repeated these assurances during a press conference last Thursday afternoon, emphasizing the strong security presence monitoring the event.

“There is no evidence of any credible threat being made,” he said.

For the pilgrims attending from the Diocese of Providence, the focus is on the many moments of encounter with Christ and other pilgrims that will take place over the next several weeks.

“We are out there to have fun, too, but it’s a different way of fun. It’s more of a fulfilling kind of trip,” said Tommy Colucci, a parishioner of St. Philip Parish, Greenville.

Alex Sienkiewicz, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Bristol, said he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what it’s like out there,” he said.

Melissa Roberts, a youth minister and chaperone accompanying the group from St. Philip, recalled her experience at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, which she attended with her brother, Father Scott Carpentier, prior to his entering the seminary.

“It was a very beautiful experience. It’ll be different going back now that my faith has deepened,” she said.

Deacon Dr. Timothy Flanigan, who will travel with family members and youth from St. Theresa and St. Christopher, attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and had some advice for young people attending for the first time.

“Be prepared to pray, to be joyful, to be full of wonder, to laugh together,” he said. “For the Holy Spirit to move you closer to our Lord.”

Dussault, who also attended World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, said her greatest hope is that the young people traveling to Krakow from the Diocese of Providence are open to receiving the messages of the Lord.

“I believe from the bottom of my soul that God will have something to say to each and every one of the pilgrims,” she said. “I pray that the pilgrims will be open to receive it.”