The biggest event in the world this week isn’t occurring in Philadelphia, or anywhere else in politics-torn America. Nope, the biggest event is the 2.5 million young people who have traveled from all over the world to Kraków, Poland this week for the 31st year of World Youth Day. Poland has had to fight and suffer a lot more recently than we have, to preserve their freedoms, and this will very likely edify the pilgrims who have come to worship, learn, grow in faith and friendships and prepare themselves to take their places in the world.
It’s such a huge moment for the Church that it will be the exclusive focus of this blog post.
What exactly is WYD?
World Youth Day was the brainchild of St. John Paul early in his pontificate. He had a great affinity for the youth of the world, and WYD began as a way for him to meet them and listen to them. He proposed WYD just as he was finishing the delivery of the theology of the body during his weekly audiences, as an encounter between the youth and the Pope.
In 1987, the first international WYD, outside the Vatican, was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina (the home of the future Pope Francis, who was a priest there at the time, by interesting coincidence) and was attended by over one million young people.
WYD events have been staged every 2-3 years ever since, growing ever larger. The largest to date was in Manila in the Philippines, attracting 5 million pilgrims.
There is no way to grok a gathering of several million people. The largest crowd most of us have experienced is 80,000 at a Cowboy game, or perhaps 250,000 at the annual Walk for Life in Washington.
This year’s WYD is the equivalent of 31 completely full Cowboy stadiums. Only aerial photographs from a great height can begin to portray a crowd that large.
What’s so special about WYD?
The kids who attend WYD have never before been in such a huge gathering of people, who all worship on their knees, cross themselves in prayer, and pray in unison even if in different languages. Imagine a Mass with over 2 million people in the congregation. Everyone knows the same prayers, whatever language they speak. The power of a united crowd of millions is beyond all prior experience. Our kids are never the same afterwards; they deeply understand catholicity, the universality of the Church and its power to unify disparate peoples.
Not only will WYD profoundly affect those in attendance, but they will go back to their home countries and multiply the influence by dozens, hundreds or even thousands. Vocations gush forth from World Youth Days. In every city that has hosted World Youth Day, priestly vocations have soared.
The only WYD to be held in the United States was in Denver in 1993. It was a relatively small one, with “only” 800,000 people attending, but its ripples keep on going. Denver is now one of the dioceses with the most seminarians per capita, which Archbishop Charles Chaput traced directly to World Youth Day 1993. Denver is also home to many imaginative lay ministries with their roots in that little WYD, including Christ in the City, One Billion Stories, and the Augustine Institute.
Cardinal George Pell of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia attests that the number of seminarians in Sydney has been increasing ever since WYD was held there in 2008. The same is true for all host cities of WYD. Need vocations? Get World Youth Day.
Georgetown University has found that one in seven new priests has participated in a World Youth Day.
What makes WYD 2016 unique?
The Church is in the middle of the worldwide Jubilee year of mercy and nowhere is better suited to that focus than Kraków, Poland, the “Capital of Mercy”. St. Faustina, the prophetess of Divine Mercy, was born in Kraków, so devotion to mercy is especially strong there.
An hour’s drive away from Kraków are the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, which the Pope and young pilgrims will visit. The sobering site, where over 1 million people were tortured and executed, is a living, physical experience of the profound need for mercy in the world.
Pilgrims will stop to pray at the Auschwitz cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe died, a Franciscan priest who offered his life to save another prisoner in 1941. No doubt this will open the door for reflection about martyrdom, especially in light of the vicious murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel as he celebrated morning Mass in Rouen, France.
Finally, Kraków is the perfect site for this Year of Mercy because it was the home of St. John Paul for most of his adult life. St. John Paul elevated Sr. Faustina to her canonization and popularized the devotion to Divine Mercy, including the official designation of the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
What’s WYD like?
The 2016 event officially opened with Mass on Tuesday evening, with the main presider Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz (pronounced JEE-vish) who was the personal secretary of St. John Paul for 39 years.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are heavy activity days for the youth. There are events all over the city, with specific language-centers playing host… venues for English-speaking pilgrims, French-speaking, Spanish-speaking, etc. Catholic musicians fill the streets, evangelists claim any corner, local churches are open all night for adoration. The city is crackling with Catholic fervor.
The primary focus for American youth is Mercy Center, the English-speaking venue sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. English Mass, Confessions, Divine Mercy chaplet and Eucharistic adoration punctuate each day, as well as the best and brightest of Catholic teachers, musicians and speakers… George Weigel, Curtis Martin, Jason and Crystalina Evert, Chris Stephanick, Bishop Robert Barron, the Sisters of Life and many more.
Bishops make themselves easily available to talk to the young people. Where else can you pick out a bishop in a crowd and go ask him about your vocation? 50 cardinals, 800 bishops and 20,000 priests from around the world are expected at this year’s WYD, with many thousands more seminarians and women religious, swelling the ranks of the consecrated.
Pope Francis, after side trips around the country, will arrive back to WYD on Thursday evening. He will lead the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, allegedly from a boat processing down the Vistula River with pilgrims on both banks.
On Saturday, after the youth have made a walking pilgrimage to the gathering site, Pope Francis will lead an overnight prayer vigil. The final event is the Papal Mass on Sunday morning.
How can I follow WYD?
Probably the best coverage is on EWTN, who has had a team on the ground at World Youth Day longer than any other news organization. EWTN can present these events from the Catholic perspective, which makes everything more intelligible than the coverage of the secular news media.
Where can I learn more about WYD?
Click on any of these links to learn more.
So many budding Catholic marriages, families, vocations and lay apostolates have come from past World Youth Days, like seeds out of a pomegranate. Perhaps the most powerful force in the growth of our youth is the worldwide bond they feel in the company of millions of other young Catholics. Suddenly they’re not “closet Christians” anymore; it’s decidedly cool to be Catholic at World Youth Day. The catechesis they receive convinces them that there is depth and solidity to the faith, and reception of the sacraments puts them in the physical presence of Christ.
St. John Paul placed great importance on personal experience. It’s not enough to know the tenets of the faith; a person has to experience the person Jesus Christ and the life of faith. Therein lies the brilliance of World Youth Day.
At a time when the world is fracturing along multiple fault lines, the youth are coming together by the millions, in curiosity and wonder, openness and goodwill, from all parts of Africa and Europe and Australia, from North and South America, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. We can look forward to many more ardent, vivacious Catholic young people, going home to transform their cultures and bring hope to the world. Pray for the young people!
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S., is director of outreach for TOBET and a veteran of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.