KRAKOW, POLAND (CCN) — From the outside, a church can look cold and dark. The stained glass windows don’t reveal much of what’s inside. But when you walk in, the sunlight streams through the multi-coloured glass and the church comes alive.
This is how the secular world often sees the Catholic Church, said Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley during English catechesis at World Youth Day in Krakow. People often think the church is just a rigid institution of traditions and beliefs. But during the celebrations, the world caught a glimpse of the church’s inside.
From July 26-31, the global church came alive in this Polish city. Young people from around the world became one in their love for Jesus Christ. No language, culture or class changed the fact we were all there for one reason: to be empowered in our one faith.
The streets were littered with pilgrims. The city was shut down for the celebrations. Many businesses were closed for the week. Residents were encouraged to stay home during times of the main events. No private vehicles were allowed to enter the city and only select transit routes were running at certain times of the day.
Still, the city was buzzing with excitement. Pilgrims brightened the streets with their country’s colours. Music and cheering were heard throughout the day and night. Even the residents of Krakow were joyful as they watched young people flood the trams, the roads and the parks. Joy filled every corner.
This is the spirit of the church I wish the secular world would see more often.
Something as mundane as laundry day became a testimony to the oneness of the Catholic Church. There weren’t many laundromats in old town Krakow. The closest one available to us was a 24-minute walk. In a city where you don’t speak the language or understand the street signs, the search was a quest in and of itself. More than 20 pilgrims shared eight pairs of washers and dryers. Pilgrims from Tennessee, Nashville, Vietnam, Italy, Portugal and Canada bonded over dirty clothes and cryptic machine instructions.
While we waited for loads to finish, we shared a makeshift potluck dinner from food we bought at a supermarket around the corner. We played charades and sang songs. We talked about our past World Youth Day experiences and how our faith has changed our lives.
During our four hours at the laundromat, I couldn’t help but think about the instant camaraderie the pilgrimage created among all of us.
The same instant camaraderie happened when you squished like sardines into the only tram that stopped near Blonia Park where thousands of pilgrims were going to meet Pope Francis for the opening mass. Everyone was hot and sweaty. There was no room to breathe, but spirits were still high and the excitement never left the pilgrims’ faces.
When we camped out on the cold, wet ground of Campus Misericordiae and the radio translations were fading in and out, we still stood at attention if only to be a part of the prayer vigil. We slept next to strangers from other corners of the world and shared stories of the sacrifices they made to make it to the site.
As we trudged back home from the vigil site in the blistering heat, then a raging thunderstorm, pilgrims stayed together and shared food rations to weather the storm. The crowds were suffocating, but no one complained because we knew we were all in this together.
Because of World Youth Day, we shared the same joys and the same hardships. We shared the same excitements and the same anxieties. We came from very different walks of life, yet we were all the same.
This is the miracle World Youth Day brings. It changes your perspective on what the church actually looks like. It’s not just a foundation built to support my personal faith, it is a family of people striving to do good and bring hope to the world.
World Youth Day is an opportunity for young people, like me, to realize how much our youthfulness is treasured by the church and the world. Bishops and priests took every opportunity to tell the young crowds how much they are valued as new leaders of the church.
Young people are at a transitional point in their life where they are trying to make their way in the world. Because of this, it is easy to get caught up in the burdens we create for ourselves about building a life and a purpose that will fulfil us. We are anxious about our new responsibility to contribute to the world around us and it makes us forget how much our youthfulness can inspire others.
Pope Francis said it best during the closing mass on July 31: “People may judge you to be dreamers because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centred or small-minded. Don’t be discouraged. With a smile and open arms, you proclaim hope and you are a blessing for our one human family, which here you represent so beautifully.”
During the week, Pope Francis talked about the refugee crisis, the political unrest in the Middle East, the religious persecution around the world, the environmental crisis, the marriage crisis and much more. But truthfully, I don’t think he really needed to mention any of it.
World Youth Day is meant to empower us to be the change that we wish for the world. We know the kind of change we want to see and all the pope did was inspire us to mobilize our desire to be that change.
As we come down from our “mountain-top experience” in Krakow, our mission as young people is to bring the fire back into our own homes, parishes and dioceses. The point of any pilgrimage is always the journey back. It’s not about the treasures you find on the journey, but about what you bring home as a person renewed.