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Tuesday

Feb 27, 2024

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World Youth Days
With Pope Francis

By Robert Strybel
Warsaw Correspondent

WARSAW –  An estimated two million young pilgrims from some 180 different countries joined Pope Francis in celebrating the latest World Youth Days.  Pioneered by Polish-born St John Paul II, the latest religious and cultural festival was held in and around the southern Polish city of Kraków. Its theme was the beatitude: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

WYD-Pope-Francis-greets-yforwebThe six-day event turned out to be a great spiritual adventure for countless young Catholics from around the globe. They included high school and college students, young soldiers from half a dozen NATO countries, seminarians, young nuns and novices,  young married couples with children, first-timers and repeaters. Piotr Michulec, a young Pole, admitted he attended his first WYD out of curiosity but found such optimism and goodwill that this was now his eighth festival.

The sight of so many clean-cut youths and the sheer volume of Christian joy,  enthusiasm and exuberance they exuded was a heartening experience indeed. But there was no getting away from the fact that the event took place following a wave of Muslim terrorist attacks in France and neighboring Germany.

The Holy Father was especially pained by the cold-blooded murder of an 86-year-old priest near Rouen, France whose throat was slit by two Islamists as he was celebrating morning mass. “Let’s recognize it. The world is in a state of war in bits and pieces,” he told reporters, adding that the attacks could be seen as another world war. “We should not be afraid to speak this truth. The world is at war because it has lost peace.”

Determined to prevent any trouble, the Polish authorities launched a major security operation before and during the week-long events. Border controls were stiffened, and hundreds of foreigners lacking proper travel documents or otherwise suspicious were not allowed into Poland. Police and army patrols were clearly in evidence and plain-clothes agents milled about in the huge congregations just in case..

At Częstochowa’s Jasna Góra Monastery, Poland’s most sacred shrine, Pope Francis stumbled on an altar step and briefly disappeared from sight before being helped to his feet. Unabashed, he continued the liturgy and only later used the incident to make a religious point: we all stumble, but the main thing is to pick oneself up and carry on.

Pope Francis may be less of an orator than Poland’s charismatic John Paul II, but he is known for his extreme humility and modesty. Rather than a VIP limousine, he traveled around Kraków in a small VW hatchback and even rode a tram. Rather than setting his own distinct style, Pope Francis continued the Polish Pontiff’s good-night chats with worshipers from the upstairs Papal Window of the Kraków Archbishop’s Palace.

His private visit to Germany’s former death camp Auschwitz marked a major departure from the cheers, applause, chants and general hubbub that had accompanied his meetings with pilgrims. Unaccompanied by the bodyguards who had surrounded him throughout his visit, the Holy Father silently walked beneath the cynical “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom) sign and continued his solitary walk through the camp. He prayed in the cell where St Maksymilian Kolbe was killed with a lethal injection and at the Wall of Death. He also met a chatted briefly with a dozen elderly Auschwitz survivors.

“Our faith batteries get charged up so much during World Youth Days that they stay with us for days, months and years,” commented Paweł Sroczyński for whom these were fifth WYD.  A group of pilgrims from the Philippines raved about the Polish naleśniki (crêpes) and pierogi. Several American pilgrims, who would not walk the streets at night back home, said they felt completely safe in Kraków and couldn’t get over how clean the streets were. They also admired  Kraków’s beautiful old architecture. A girl from war-torn Syria also said she felt safe in Poland. “In my country, when I leave work I never know whether my home and family will still be there,.” she explained.

During one of his daily Papal Window chats he said the secret of a happy marriage boiled down to three expressions: please, thank you and sorry. “Misunderstandings will occur, and sometimes even dishes go flying, but the main thing is to make up before the day is out. There should be no cold war of silence,” he emphasized.

An ocean of youthful humanity stretched as far as the eye could see in the Field of Mercy outside the village of Brzegi, some seven miles from Kraków. That was the the venue of a prayer vigil held in on the eve of Pope Francis’ departure. There the Holy Father warned against becoming a 20-some-year-old retiree, a Christian couch potato whose life revolves round the Internet and computer games.  On two separate occasions he urged young people to converse with their grandparents who have a wealth of experiences and traditions to hand down.

Several young people came forth to share their experiences. A Brazilian said he had cut himself off from his family during 16 years of drug addiction and came clean only thanks to his religious faith. A young Polish woman had a good career and loads of fun with good-looking males, until one day she woke up and realized the emptiness of her life. Something pushed her to go to confession for the first time in years, giving her a new lease on life.

On the final day of his sojourn, Pope Francis invited young people to the next World Youth Days which will take place in the Central American Republic of Panama in 2019. He appeared for one last time in the Papal Window, thanked pilgrims for receiving him so cordially and asked them to pray for him.For a churchman his age, the 79-year-old Pontiff held up remarkably well during his stay in Poland despite the hot, humid weather and packed schedule.

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