World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland just concluded. An estimated 2.5 million pilgrims attended the closing mass with Pope Francis. I’ve had the gift of attending three World Youth day celebrations—Paris ’97, Rome 2000, and as a volunteer in Cologne in 2005. The first was life-altering and each was epic in different ways. In celebration of World Youth Day this week in Krakow, Poland, here are some of the reasons those in attendance will no doubt have an epic experience. Pray for them!
1. Started by a Saint
World Youth day was started by St. John Paul II in 1986. The Holy Father had a particular love for youth—for their sense of hope, their passion, the expectation that they will change the world. As a young priest in Poland, he would often take groups of college students in the mountains on hiking trips to teach them, listen to them, and ask them about their lives. These were the first youth days, so to speak, with the future Pope.
2. See the World
World Youth Day 2016 is in Krakow, Poland. It has been celebrated in Manila, Rome, Paris, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Toronto, Madrid, Cologne, and Rio de Janeiro. This makes a pilgrimage to World Youth Day a cultural event with opportunities to travel and experience the Church in other cultures. When I attended WYD in Paris in 1997, our pilgrimage group first visited Rome, Florence, Assisi, and then Paris. For Rome in 2000, we had the chance to visit Munich, Nice, Lucerne, and of course some sites in Italy once again. The Pope will announce the host city for the next World Youth Day at the close of the Krakow celebrations. The next World Youth Day will be in Panama in 2019!
3. Meet Your Brothers and Sisters
You’ll meet brothers and sister in Christ you never knew you had. This was one of the most profound realizations that struck me at my first WYD in Paris in ’97. I was on the fence about the faith, having just graduated high school. I went to WYD because I saw it as an opportunity to go to Europe. But meeting all these joyful spiritual siblings from all over the world and realizing that what united us was our common baptism in Christ changed everything. At Cologne in 2005, I worked as a volunteer. Our work team had around a dozen people on it and we were assigned to various jobs during our 2 week gig–mainly working “security” at events and handing on food and information. The team consisted of 3 Americans, a few Slovakians, Germans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Belgians. Our team leader was German, so she would explain our task to us in English (because pretty much all Germans speak English), and then we’d have to explain it to the Mexicans and Guatemalans in Spanish. One of the Slovakians spoke some German, so she’d then convey the information to her countrymen. Somehow it worked. But the thing that united us all? Our faith in Christ.
Every pilgrim receives a pilgrim pack that usually includes a backpack, information materials, prayer booklets, maps, a shirt, and a rain poncho. Pilgrims also bring items from their home countries to trade with people they meet. At Cologne in 2005, the item everyone wanted were safari hats the Italians all had. As volunteers at that WYD, we received a rather nice rain jacket (which came in handy…it rained a lot) that said “volunteer” across the back. Everyone wanted to trade with us!
5. BIG. CATHOLIC. SLEEPOVER.
The main event is a vigil with EVERYONE. The Holy Father flies in to give an address, there’s music, and sometimes people get baptized (as in Paris in ’97). The Pope flies out for the night and the pilgrims stay up singing, playing games, sharing stories, and meeting new friends from all over the Body of Christ. The Pope returns in the morning and celebrates mass. Literally millions of pilgrims attend this event. WYD Manila in 1995 saw 5 million in attendance.
6. Sleep in Weird Places
A lot of people attend World Youth Day. A LOT. Space is limited and pilgrims often find themselves roughing it throughout the week. Some opt for a more comfortable experience (as my group did in Paris and Rome) but most will find themselves going to sleep in odd places—the homes of host families, gym floors, classrooms, parking garages (also great for an international game of ultimate frisbee), public transit, to name just a few.
7. The Successor to Peter in the Flesh
Our faith is incarnate. God created the world but also took on a created human nature in Christ. The Church is visible and so is Her Earthly head, the Pope, the successor to Peter. There is something about seeing the Pope live and in the flesh and hearing him speak to YOU the same way he spoke to the crowd at Pentecost.
8. You are not alone
“The Church is dying”, said no one ever who attended World Youth Day. If you were beginning to lose hope and were feeling like no one understood what it’s like to be a Christian, well, then here comes everyone.
9. The Church is Universal
One of the most profound realizations I had during my initial WYD was that the Church is bigger than my own limited experience of it. I may not like the music at my parish, but that’s not the Church. I may not like this or that priest or parishioner, but that’s not the Church. I may find my own experience limited and quite human and colloquial, but that’s not the Church. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. She is spread through time and space and covers all the Earth and all of history. This is the Catholic Church. At that WYD in Paris I came to understand what Chesterton meant when he said, “The Church is bigger on the inside than on the outside.” She is bigger than you think.
10. Jesus Christ is the Same Yesterday, Today, Forever
And She is so because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, forever. The same Christ with Whom the Apostles Peter walked and ate with and touched after He rose from the dead is the same living Christ Who is present now while Peter’s successor speaks to millions of young people. He is alive! We pray that those pilgrims who attended Krakow will go forth and witness to their encounter with their lives! See you in Panama 2019!