World Youth Day Round-Up

wyd

I have waaayy too much to say about World Youth Day, but here’s the short story: at the end of Cologne (2005) I said I would never go again, at the end of Madrid (2011) I said I would never go again, and I very, very nearly did not go to Krakow. But you know what?! You guessed it – I am blown away by the awesomeness and mercy of God that he disregarded my stubbornness and got me there. There are so many reasons why I’m glad I went, but the main one is the young people in our group. We went with the Foyers de Charité and were an international group of French, English, Polish and Haitian pilgrims. There were around 45 English pilgrims, and lots of them quite young (under 18). God amazed me by showing me he wanted to use me in new ways – not least through coordinating our catechesis centre in Krakow for English-speaking pilgrims, but also leading young people through the packed streets of Krakow (you’ve never seen a crowd till you’ve been to World Youth Day) and numberless beautiful conversations and funny moments. Countless times, my friend Collette and I would ask, “Why are we here?!” when standing in the pouring rain with twenty young people, struggling with Google maps for the route home, trying not to think how much data we were using; or discovering that our room had been overtaken by young people wanting deep, meaningful conversations at 2am – but we knew God’s answer… Somehow he was asking a new and unexpected thing. God’s mercy is enormous, he wants and needs us, and he will always ask for more… if you open your heart a tiny crack.

So, bearing in mind that every group’s experience is unique (and which group you go with really determines your experience of World Youth Day), I want to share with you a few snapshots into our experience:

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Spiritual conference at the Foyer

Spiritual conference at the Foyer

Going with the Foyers, our spiritual game was strong, and I was so thankful for that. Our first week included a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine, and two days of silent retreat. We had spiritual conferences given by the two wonderful priests who accompanied us, Mass, Adoration and the Rosary every day, praise and worship, a night of mercy and a big emphasis on Confession. For me, this was the greatest blessing of the pilgrimage – the ability to have silence, to listen to the Lord speak – and this was invaluable in setting our group up for the week that followed.

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Some of our amazing young team

Some of our amazing young team

Yes, the second week was crazier, more demanding, for sure… Thankfully we now had great spiritual reservoirs to draw from. The Foyers were responsible for an English-speaking catechesis centre, and Collette and I coordinated this. Catechesis takes place from Wednesday through Friday in the week leading up to World Youth Day, from 9am-12pm. We were told to expect 450 pilgrims, and to prepare a programme of morning prayer and praise, introduction to the bishop giving the catechesis, a time of Q&A with the bishop, and Mass. Now get this – some of these catechesis centres were huge, had dedicated teams, and had been preparing for over a year in advance. Our catechesis centre? We had maybe two hours of preparation the day before with our MCs and music ministry (none of whom had even been to World Youth Day before). If you know me, you know how stress-inducing this situation must have been. Add to this – no cable or pedal for the keyboard we were using; the song words not showing up on the screen in the church; no proper way of amplifying the keyboard or guitar, and Mass not finishing until only 30 minutes before giving us limited time to set up. Wow – God knows how to strip us of everything! Luckily, with two young and talented MCs and an extraordinarily talented young music ministry, we pulled it off. I am still so proud of them and what we achieved with God’s grace. We were blessed with catechesis from Cardinal Turkson, Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Cupich… a broad range – and each was fantastic in his own way.

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At our catechesis centre, praying for the bishop who was about to speak

At our catechesis centre, praying for the bishop who was about to speak

Running a catechesis centre means early starts, and waking at 6am with every muscle in your body aching and forcing yourself into the shower, showed me how for the over-30s, World Youth Day really is a crucible! Our team headed to the church early and prayed Morning Prayer in the silent, grassy area outside the church, and it came to be one of my favourite moments of each day. Then heading to the church for high-energy welcomes and upbeat songs to wake up sleepy pilgrims from Indonesia, Turkey, Texas, Ukraine, India and many other countries. The blessing of a small catechesis centre was meeting the same pilgrims each day and forming bonds and friendships with them. We experienced so much fun and joy in these mornings.

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By the end of catechesis on Friday morning, we headed to the Divine Mercy shrine, but relentlessly early mornings, late nights and leading young people through enormous crowds had taken their toll and, exhausted, we fell asleep under a tree in the grounds. (You become a different person during World Youth Day, doing things you would never normally do, like falling asleep under trees in public spaces… One morning I found myself eating a yoghurt and bag of granola on a bus with a plastic fork and wondered what had become of me…) On this particular Friday, our guardian angels must have been on the case, because we woke at quarter to three just as other friends were walking past us. (Random meetings with close friends are remarkably commonplace at World Youth Day.) We walked towards the shrine, and found ourselves, at 3pm, kneeling with what seemed like the whole world, praying the Divine Mercy chaplet through our tiredness. Gazing upon the image of Divine Mercy, I knew Jesus’ gaze on my exhausted body and was filled with immense peace.

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wyd group

The rest of the day was full of beautiful chance encounters. Heading back into the centre of Krakow, we treated ourselves on this one afternoon off to a proper meal and glass of wine on the market square. (We found that not enough restaurants were participating in the meal vouchers scheme which resulted in humungous queues, and often going home at night without eating anything.) As we sat there, who should walk past but Fr Stephen Wang! Later, we headed to the Dominican church (who put on a wonderful Frassati café offering free coffee and cake to visitors of Blessed Pier Giorgio’s relics), and met my good friend who was ordained a priest a few weeks ago. Standing outside the church, we encountered other friends we knew walking past. After Adoration in an amazingly silent church that housed St Therese’s relics, we went to meet another close friend of mine who was eating dinner nearby. All I could think as I tumbled into my sleeping bag that night – God knows how to restore the soul through friends, food, and Adoration.

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My first World Youth Day was eleven years ago. In Krakow’s market square one day, I bumped into two who had been in that group from our university chaplaincy. They are now both religious, one a Brother with the Community of St John, and the other a Dominican priest. One had said “yes” to his vocation at Cologne in 2005. Looking back on the photos of those who went, nearly everyone is married, and the others are single and consecrated in some way, with their own apostolates. It amazed me to reflect on how God has spread us out, each with big groups of young people that we were now pastoring in some way. How beautiful the Church is, bringing young people to Christ from generation to generation! Attracting us to Him, and sending us out! World Youth Day is here to stay, and I think I might be brave enough to say, I’ll go to Panama.

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1 Response

  1. 3 September 2016

    […] of the young people pouring themselves out in running the Youth 2000 festival, and it was my experience on World Youth Day last month. I remember aching with tiredness and still pushing on, and knowing this is the experience of the […]

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