“You can’t really explain it, you have to be there to understand it”, was something I heard a lot about World Youth Day and, two weeks ago, something I found quite frustrating. I wanted to know what it would be like, and there was simply no way of predicting. Yet two weeks later, I find myself in the same position – how do I possibly articulate such an experience? My head abuzz with crazy memories, snippets of talks, and interesting discoveries; it’s no wonder I’m struggling to make sense of it all.
The first challenge lies within the fact that whole experience is completely unique. I suppose at times we felt we were at sell-out concerts, in football matches, or, as on the last walk to the vigil site, that we were on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. Now combine all these experiences together, adding thousands of vibrant youth from all over the world, erratic weather and Pope Francis, and I feel you might have taken a small step into understanding WYD.
One of the most startling things was the sheer size of the gatherings. In places like Błonia Park and Campus Misericordiae, it was mesmerising to think that as far as your eye could see there were singing and praying youth like yourself, people just as excited to see and hear from the Pope. Yet for me the most powerful moments were not the sounds of thousands of voices shouting “Jesus Christ – you are my life” – although admittedly that was quite special – but the moments of quiet.
During one of the mornings in Łódź there was a power cut; the microphones and translations cut out, the whirring of the machines completely stopped. The hall was filled with an intense silence, as people stopped singing to turn their hearts and thoughts to Christ. Just to be still and pray among so much noise served as a pertinent reminder as to what the real reason behind all the festivities was – our faith.
World Youth Day was just as much about the big events as it was about the personal encounters. There were innumerable chances to meet other Catholics – whether it be to trade trinkets and take selfies, or to discuss their experiences and journeys to WYD. One of the simple joys was that an interesting conversation and new friends could materialise at any time. One moment you might be chatting with some Italian monks at the road crossing. A few hours later, and you’re introducing yourself to the Ecuadorian priest and the Polish nun sleeping in the same field as you.
When you’re so used to keeping to yourself on public transport, and have constantly been warned of “stranger-danger” growing up, it’s pretty alien to be on a bus where everyone is chatting and laughing with the people who are packed in like sardines around them. It was not only about meeting other youth, but times of Adoration, Mass, and Catechesis meant that each pilgrim had ample opportunities to encounter Jesus in various and personal ways.
Big events, meeting new people, moments of prayer… and I still feel I’ve barely covered it all. There are so many incidences that spring to mind – jumpstarting a coach with the help of some Hail Mary’s, running 5km through Łódź late at night for charity, being offered apple juice and sausages after spending 24 hours on a coach – just to name a few.
After spending two weeks in a happy bubble of Catholic youth, to see the refugee camp in Calais and a protest in London from the coach window was a harsh jolt back into the reality of our world. It would be so easy to feel discouraged, to leave the spirit and joy of WYD behind in Krakow. Yet there is something about standing alongside 1.5 million members of your Catholic family, all holding candles, that brings hope to your world.
Pope Francis urged us to “Launch on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire” and reminded us all at the closing Mass, “World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes”. The chaos and buzzing atmosphere we might have left in Poland, but as for the message of hope and mercy – each pilgrim brings it right back home.