Religious freedom at the heart of World Youth Day for pope, participants

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KRAKOW, Poland — Among the many conversations and homilies that took place during World Youth Day July 26–31, one theme that kept returning was the importance of freedom of religion and the call as Catholics to shelter those whose freedoms are in danger.

The location of World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, a city that has played host to some of that nation’s most important religious figures as well as a Cold War-era Soviet regime that restricted religious practice, provided a backdrop for these conversations. Just as the legacy of Saint Faustina Kowalska and her devotion to the Divine Mercy prompted discussions of mercy throughout the week, Saint John Paul II’s legacy as a fierce defender of religious freedom provided countless opportunities for examining the state of that freedom in society today.

Pope Francis, in an address to Polish officials shortly after his arrival on Wednesday, acknowledged the nation’s long history of struggle for independence and its ultimate success at securing religious and other freedoms for its citizens.

“After the storms and dark times, your people, having regained its dignity, could say, like the Jews returning from Babylon, ‘We were like those who dream… our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy.’” Pope Francis went on to say that the memory of Poland’s long struggle must provide a foundation for policies that support those who suffer around the world and welcome them as they seek religious freedom.

“An awareness of the progress made and joy at goals achieved become, in turn, a source of strength and serenity for facing present challenges,” said Pope Francis. “Also needed is a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”

In Poland, a country that has reneged on promises to accept Syrian and other refugees during the past year, the pope’s direct call for greater acceptance poses a challenge for a population that is also more than 90 percent Catholic.

Speakers throughout World Youth Day referred to the impact of war and extremism on religious practice in places like Aleppo, where Syrian Christians unable to leave the besieged city held their own World Youth Day gathering in solidarity with their brothers and sisters from around the globe, sending a video message to Pope Francis and their peers in Krakow. Rand Mittri, an Aleppo native, offered testimony about her experience before Pope Francis during a prayer vigil held Saturday evening.

“It may be difficult for many of you to understand the full breadth of what is happening in my beloved country, Syria,” said Mittri. “Every day we live surrounded by suffering, by death. Just like you, each day we close our doors behind us as we leave for work, or for school. Unlike many of you, however, we are stunned by fear in that very moment that we will not return to our homes or our families as we left them.”

Pilgrims also heard a firsthand account of religious persecution at a panel on religious freedom organized by the Knights of Columbus at the Tauron Arena Mercy Centre earlier in the week. Speakers included Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, George Weigel, author of “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II,” Jacqueline Isaac, human rights advocate for Christians and women in the Middle East, and Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq. Archbishop Warda received several standing ovations as he discussed the targeting of Christians and other religious minorities by extremists in his country.

For pilgrims from the Diocese of Providence, reminders of the struggle for religious freedom were present at the many religious and historical sites visited throughout Poland. Prior to arriving in Krakow, diocesan pilgrims toured the Shrine of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest who was assassinated in 1984 after speaking out against communism as a member of the anti-communist Solidarity movement.

In Krakow, several pilgrims visited Our Lady Queen of Poland Church in the neighborhood of Nowa Huta, a town that became a symbol of Polish Catholic resistance to Soviet atheism during the Cold War after then-Archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla led a campaign for the right to build a church in the state-planned suburb. The church, also called the Lord’s Ark, was consecrated in 1977 only after a decades-long struggle.

“It’s really cool to be in a place where for decades and decades, people tried to remove God from society,” said Greg Speidel, a parishioner at St. Pius V Parish, Providence, and one of the pilgrims who paid a visit to Nowa Huta.

“They tried to take God away from people and thought that people would adjust to it,” Speidel added. “But you can see from all the people here that people do need God. That desire is never going to go away.”

Walking around the city, reminders of the struggle for religious freedom were present in the many flags carried by World Youth Day pilgrims. Several diocesan pilgrims reflected on the number of countries they saw represented and the fact that many of their fellow pilgrims enjoyed less religious freedom in their home countries than American Catholics do.

“The Gospel talks about being able to worship without fear all the days of our lives,” said Michael Santos, a parishioner at Saints Teresa and Christopher Parishes, Tiverton. “This is our chance to do this. How far did they [fellow pilgrims] come to do this?”

Santos also commented on the sense of solidarity he felt watching pilgrims from nations traditionally in conflict with each other participating together in the Latin Mass.

“I saw Pakistan and India side by side. I saw Palestine and Israel less than two minutes apart from each other. All these places the world is telling us should be divided, all united because of their love for Christ.”