“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” Such are the lines from Pope John Paul II to the youth of the world, inviting all to join him on the magnificent quest for Christ.
As ever, but specifically in 1985, this hunt of a lifetime was far from simple. Church numbers were dwindling and the youth especially was complacent, disinterested. A revival was necessary. Especially fond of the youth, Pope John Paul II—or JPII, as he was affectionately nicknamed—launched a genuinely life-altering campaign to globally engage them: World Youth Day. In brief, it is an opportunity for millions of Catholic youth to congregate in a single city, trek its streets, and spread the Gospel through their witness. At its conclusion, the Pope dramatically lands via helicopter to explosive applause, followed by Mass, confession, prayer, and sleeping under the stars.
Young people seek adventure; JPII challenged them to travel across the world with only the necessities. The youth yearn for community; accordingly, JPII proscribed that as many as possibly attend this festival. Young people vie for acceptance; JPII assured them that they would find it in the arms of Jesus, surrounded by likeminded peers.
Skeptics scoffed, saying that youth of the Church would never accept such a grandiose, dangerous invitation. In the summer of 1986, in St. Peter’s Square, skeptics were proven quite wrong. JPII joyfully cried to the 300,000 ecstatic young adults, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values?”
From then on, the attendees increased rapidly with each World Youth Day, which now officially occurs every 2-3 years. There was something remarkable about this event: hardened atheists sent by concerned mothers returned to their family professing a true belief in God. Lukewarm teens were set afire with an indescribable joy, and even those who claimed they would hate it returned home as changed young men and women, dedicated to serving the Lord.
From locations ranging from Toronto, Paris, and Madrid, each pilgrimage presented a varying theme, such as “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” and “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good” (John 14:6, Matthew 5:13-14).
At JPII’s death in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI gladly took up the call to continue World Youth Day, as has the current pope, Pope Francis—or “Papa Frankie” as many have affectionately taken to calling him. This year, World Youth Day has been announced to take place in the summer in Kraków (pronounced “crack-ov”), Poland, homeland of JPII.
I will be in attendance with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, along with my twin brother, his godfather, and two of our best friends. Not only will we be present for all the official ceremonies and activities, but for two weeks, we will trek across Poland, visiting the charming town of Czestochowa (pronounced “chest-uh-hova”), the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, wandering about Kraków, and exploring the Polish countryside and villages.
An emphasis has been made by our group leaders that this is not a vacation, but a pilgrimage. Only the essentials must be brought, with perhaps only 3 simple outfits of shorts and t-shirts. Rest will be rare, and sleeping in bathtubs, on the floor, and outside will not be out of the question. Likewise, showers will be sparse, and a surplus of deodorant is recommended. Laundry will be done perhaps once a week, depending on if we find a hostel in which to do it. Strangely, I’m actually very excited for these components, though I’m sure I’ll decide otherwise on the actual trip.
One thing is for certain: World Youth Day in Kraków will be the experience of a lifetime. There will be exhaustion, frustration, homesickness—but just as surely, there will be faith, wonder, and joy. In the words of Pope Francis, “Are you ready?” Yes, Papa Frankie. I am more than ready. We are ready, absolutely ecstatic, to bring light to the world.