For diocesan pilgrims, World Youth Day a powerful witness to God’s mercy


Editor’s Note: Staff Reporter Lauren Clem traveled with a group from the Diocese of Providence to World Youth Day 2016 and reports this week, and also in our next edition, on the pilgrimage, as well as their travels to other religious and historically significant sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

KRAKOW, Poland — When 65 youth, young adults and chaperones from the Diocese of Providence arrived in Krakow, Poland, the evening before the start of World Youth Day on Tuesday, July 26, many of them did not know what to expect. Some had attended past World Youth Days in Toronto and other locations, and a few had read up on the experience, discovering accounts of spiritual conversion, widespread fellowship and a lot of walking.

But for most of the diocesan pilgrims, the gathering of approximately 1.5 million Catholics would prove difficult to envision, a profound encounter with God’s mercy and celebration of the universal Church unlike anything before experienced.

“You don’t have any expectations of what it’s going to be,” explained Samuel Hopkins, a parishioner at St. Philip Parish, Greenville, as he reflected on the experience after the close of the event last week.

World Youth Day, initiated in 1986 by St. John Paul II, provides a unique experience of the universal Catholic Church. Part conference, part pilgrimage and part festival of faith, the event offers young Catholics boundless opportunities to join in worship with their peers from around the world. Attendees at World Youth Day 2016 also had a chance to reflect upon God’s mercy, as the event’s location in Krakow, a city once home to St. Faustina Kowalska and her devotion to the Divine Mercy, and timing during the Jubilee Year of Mercy provided an ideal setting for the theme, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“We bring to this meeting with Jesus during these days our personal experiences of living the Gospel in our difficult world,” Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, told the young people gathered in Krakow’s Blonia Park during the homily of Tuesday evening’s opening Mass. “We bring our fears and disappointments, but also our hopes and yearning, our desire to live in a more human, more fraternal and solitary world.”

Pilgrims from the Diocese of Providence had numerous opportunities to join fellow Catholics in celebrating their faith as they attended Eucharistic adoration and Mass at the World Youth Day Mercy Center at Tauron Arena, prayed before the tomb of St. Faustina and the relics of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and visited numerous shrines and holy sites around the city, including the Divine Mercy Sanctuary, St. Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Cathedral.

Meeting pilgrims from the six continents was a highlight of the experience for many diocesan young people. From casual high-fives with pilgrims from France and Germany as they walked around Krakow’s main square, to hearing the testimony of pilgrims from Syria and Paraguay at Saturday evening’s prayer vigil with Pope Francis, the sense of fellowship was present in every moment of the event.

“For one moment, the world can come together in peace and it’s going to be okay,” said Grace Piette, a parishioner at St. Agatha Church, Woonsocket, as she reflected on the prayer vigil and Sunday’s papal Mass. “It gave me that hope. I’m never going to forget that. That was honestly amazing.”

Pilgrims heard Pope Francis speak several times throughout the week, beginning with Thursday’s welcoming ceremony in Blonia Park, where he addressed the gathered young people for the first time. He expressed his hope to the young people that they not opt for “early retirement,” but participate fully in a life lived passionately spreading the mercy of Jesus Christ.

“Nothing is more beautiful than seeing the enthusiasm, dedication, zeal and energy with which so many young people live their lives,” he said. “It is beautiful. It is the source of beauty. When Jesus touches a young person’s heart, he or she becomes capable of truly great things.”

The speech was especially moving for Jasmin Wagner, a pilgrim from Saints Teresa and Christopher Parishes, Tiverton, who recounted her experience of hearing Pope Francis for the first time at breakfast in the hotel the following morning.

“I wasn’t raised Catholic. Wasn’t really raised in any religion. This whole trip I’ve felt a little bit out of place,” she said. “He was speaking in Italian and then [a fellow pilgrim] gave me one of his earbuds [for translation] and that opened up an entirely new world.”

Wagner explained how she had spent much of her life around addiction and alcohol, and to hear the pope address the topic of sharing God’s mercy without judgment or stigma moved her to tears.

“People need that mercy. They need that grace. They need to know that they’re accepted,” she said. “And hearing the pope address that in front of millions of people when I’ve had as much experience with it was just amazing.”

Pilgrims also experienced very personal encounters with the words of Pope Francis on Friday, when he led them through the Stations of the Cross in Blonia Park. Gabriela Caldera, a parishioner at Saints Teresa and Christopher Parishes, Tiverton, recalled the sense of solidarity with other pilgrims and even residents of Krakow who greeted them from their balconies as they walked to and from the event.

“It’s completely crazy, but at the same time everyone is so happy,” she said. “When I read [the Stations of the Cross], I felt so determined to go out and show other people mercy and forgive and put other people before myself. [Pope Francis] challenged the youth that were there to go out and show mercy.”

The week’s culminating event, a Saturday evening overnight prayer vigil with Pope Francis, was a high point for the diocesan pilgrims both spiritually and physically, as they joined other pilgrims in keeping with a World Youth Day tradition of walking to and from the venue and sleeping out under the stars as they awaited the pope’s return for Sunday morning Mass. Throughout the trip, pilgrims treated their experience in Krakow and other religious sites as a walking pilgrimage, often reciting prayers as they journeyed and completing, according to the record of one pilgrim’s Fitbit, 99.8 miles over the course of the 13-day trip.

“We were walking with a common purpose to do what the pope asked us to do,” said Marie Handren, a chaperone who attended with youth from St. Philip Parish. “Then and there was when we felt like pilgrims.”

During the vigil, pilgrims lit candles and sang the Divine Mercy Chaplet, listening as Pope Francis asked them to make their individual marks on history by choosing Christ. For Daniel Arteaga, a parishioner at St. John Paul II Parish, Pawtucket, the moment of solemn prayer with 1.5 million other Catholics was the high point of the pilgrimage.

“It was in that moment that we could come to understand that we were all together but we were all facing Christ,” he said.

The following morning, as pilgrims prepared to make the long trek back and close out their World Youth Day experience, Pope Francis entreated them once again to remember their mission as members of the Church and bring God’s mercy back with them to their homes.

“In these days, we have experienced the beauty of our universal fraternity in Christ, the center and hope of our lives,” he said during the closing prayer. “These days have given you a spiritual breath of fresh air that will help you live lives of mercy once you return to your own countries and communities.”

For pilgrims from the Diocese of Providence, the pope’s words resonated with the many encounters of mercy and fellowship they had experienced over the previous week. Back at the hotel that evening, as the young people enjoyed a moment of fellowship with their peers and laughed over favorite World Youth Day moments, Melissa Roberts, a youth minister and chaperone from St. Philip Parish who attended her first World Youth Day as a young person in Toronto in 2002, summed up the experience of returning home after the powerful event.

“Everyone’s on their own journey. We don’t come to these events as a be-all and end-all,” she said. “We come to these events to be set on fire for our faith and go forth and share it.”