If you go on pilgrimage thinking it will be a place for silence and reflection, or something like a holiday with Jesus, you might be very wrong. Pilgrimage is certainly a place where you encounter Christ, though not in a way that’s always comfortable or peaceful. World Youth Day, for me, was entering into a place of desolation, obstacles and even brokenness. Yet in the midst of it, God revealed his mercy to me in some unforgettable ways: through pilgrims, through young people, through the organisers.
As a result, I experienced a stronger intimacy with God than I probably would have if our pilgrimage had been a walk in Błonia Park. I experienced Mercy and each time I did, it was like a beacon of light in a place that was very dark. It was a reminder of God’s love for me in a place where it was easy for me to forget it. And if I could experience this Mercy at World Youth Day and feel it’s power, imagine what these works can do for people who don’t know God.
1. Feeding the Hungry
On the night of the vigil, pilgrims exchange vouchers in order to get a food pack for the evening and morning we spend at the site, Campus Misericordiae. A group of about six people set off to exchange the vouchers for our group and bring back food packs. However, there were 55 of us (the rest were in another location), and we greatly underestimated the size of the food packs. Not only did the group spend quite a while searching out where to find food, and waiting to get it, but they struggled greatly to carry back 22 packs of food (the most they could carry) in order to feed us.
Twenty-two packs of food meant that each food pack had to be shared between three people. And so I found myself seated with two friends as we divvied up food, sacrificing a bit of everything to one another in order to ensure we all had enough. It was awesome to see the lengths people went in order to provide for our group. It was humbling to see men with huge appetites accept much less in order to give more. It was beautiful to receive this work of mercy, being fed both physically and fed within my heart.
2. Giving Drink to the Thirsty
It was a 10 mile trek through the Polish summer heat to the vigil site at Campus Misericordiae. We packed two bottles of water, but it was easy for there to be stretches of track without a shop or water pump in sight. At one point, one of the young people in my group was looking exhausted. I asked her if she’d been drinking water and she said she’d run out. Another girl in the group, Zuzanna, was quick to offer her own water. “Here, I have some. Drink.”
“Drink.” It was simple, but meaningful, that without hesitation one young person would offer their own water for someone with none. Not to mention the mercy given by people who carted huge packages of bottled water in order to give drink to our thirsty group at Campus Misericordiae. It was often burdensome and difficult to find and bring back water, but so necessary to avoid heat stroke. To carry such a load when it would have been easy to just grab two bottles for yourself was mercy in action.
3. Sheltering the Homeless
This work of mercy is about hospitality, about making people feel welcome and comfortable. And for me it came in the form of a few bin bags. Being someone who doesn’t generally sleep outside, I didn’t realize the dew effect of sleeping bags. I figured with such blazing heat during the day there’s no way any moisture could be left in the ground. But as the sun started to set, I could already feel my sleeping bag becoming damp.
I began to complain “Ach, my sleeping bag is already getting wet!” A friend of mine pulled out some bin bags he had brought. “Here. Lay these under the sleeping bag. It’ll help keep it dry.” I slept comfortably at the vigil as a result of that gesture. The difference between wet and dry is often the difference between discomfort and comfort. Lots of people forgot to bring certain creature comforts to the vigil: toothpaste, wet wipes, toilet paper, sun cream. Yet the group did everything it could to make Campus Misericordiae like home, giving and sharing all we had brought. Mercy made a home out of the vigil site.
4. Visiting the Imprisoned
I don’t want to imply that having a group of eight young people was like being in prison, but at times it was easy to feel trapped. I had a lot of responsibility and I was carrying it alone. I didn’t have a partner with whom to strategise, pray or lead. I had eight young people in my care from 7am until 10:30pm and that meant I sacrificed some of my own freedom to minister and lead them.
It’s a difficult task but certainly possible with God’s help; but a few days into the trip I felt that I wasn’t getting the amount of personal prayer time I needed to lead. I was becoming short with the girls in my group, and drained. I needed to buy a towel and get a Polish SIM card but with a full schedule there was no time to do it. One of the pilgrimage organisers, Bekah, noticed that I was drained and offered to take my group for an afternoon. She visited me where I was at and gave me an opportunity to remember my freedom. In that time, I was able to go to a nearby seminary where I sat alone in the quiet Adoration chapel with Jesus for about 45 minutes. It was mercy to be given that space to be with Jesus.
5. Clothing the Naked
Each pilgrim got a rain poncho as part of their pilgrim pack. But of course, at least two girls in my group forgot theirs on the way to a rainy audience with the Pope. Another girl in the group, Maya, gave her poncho for someone to use while she used a raincoat that covered a lot less than the poncho. At other times, the girls in my group also shared their umbrellas as well. They didn’t have anything to gain from keeping their group members dry, but their acts poured out from hearts that had experienced mercy.
6. Visiting the Sick
Pilgrimage is a huge strain on the body. Feeding over a million people means eating throughout the day will be a more infrequent and probably less nutritional. A full schedule means our bodies are put to the limit without much time for rest; not to mention the spread of germs from all the hugs, handshakes and high-fives. As a result, people will become sick. I got a stomach virus, others lost their voices, others had aches and pains throughout their body, and still others battled dehydration and panic attacks.
But God’s mercy came to heal. First, in the form of the doctors and health professionals on our pilgrimage who dedicated the entire pilgrimage to visiting the sick, even going as far as stepping out of a Communion line in order to help someone in need. Second, in the form of leaders who stayed behind with sick people, helped give struggling pilgrims an arm to lean on during the long walks, and took on more small groups in order that sick leaders could rest. Visiting the sick seemed to be an even greater sacrifice on a pilgrimage that was constantly moving. Visiting the sick wasn’t going to a place and stopping there. It was visiting people where they were at and giving them a means to continue journeying. It was healing them and restoring them by the Mercy of God.
7. Burying the Dead
It was hard to lose my grandmother. It was harder to miss her funeral. And it was even harder to be thousands of miles away from anyone who knew what I was missing. It’s easier to mourn when you’re with people who loved and knew the person you lost. Throughout the pilgrimage, many people offered their condolences to my grandmother. Some read her obituary, others shared that they were praying for her. It was nice to share who my grandma was with people. It was nice for people to want to know why the loss was hard.
One friend in particular showed me God’s mercy when she offered to pray a Rosary for my grandma on the walk to Campus Misericordiae. The day we prayed was the day of my grandma’s funeral. It was a good opportunity to offer up something for her, and to pray this Rosary with someone who could help me honour the memory of Granma Blenda. The pilgrims in our diocese helped to spiritually bury my grandma with me, and putting her to rest was a great act of mercy.
Mercy does not have to be complicated. We have opportunities every day to be merciful, to share God’s mercy with others. And when we have received that mercy, how could we possibly contain it? When we have received comfort, when we have been fed, when we have been sheltered and clothed and visited, how can we not do the same for others? Our faith is an exchange of love, and when you live this Christian faith, mercy happens. Mercy isn’t just a year in the Church, it’s something given and received every day of our lives. Experiencing that Mercy at World Youth Day has helped me to see it everywhere, to know it at every hour, to share it at every opportunity. And where there is Mercy, there is God.