This essay was written by Norma O’Leary, a 19-year-old young woman from Donoughmore parish. Norma is currently a First Year student in a Health Sciences (Radiography) course in UCD. Here, she writes about her experience of the World Youth Day pilgrimage to Krakow with her diocese in July 2016.
What exactly is World Youth Day and what does it entail? This is a question I was asked consistently before I left for WYD in Krakow 2016. To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that question. “It’s a pilgrimage” or “I’m going to see the Pope” I uttered quickly, to an often baffled, perplexed friend. How wrong was I? I didn’t even get to the surface of WYD in those scant descriptions. Initiated in 1985 by Saint Pope John Paul II, it is a global celebration of faith. It’s where you can meet other young Catholics and feel reassured you are not the only one. It’s where you find yourself chanting “Papa Francesco” to a deafening cacophony with hundreds and indeed thousands of pilgrims from nearly every nationality and when you fully comprehend the strength and depth of the church. It’s where you find yourself, the love of God and yes, you do see the Pope!
Before heading, there were four occasions to meet up with the group from the Diocese of Cloyne travelling to Poland. However when I set foot into Cork Airport, in a drowsy state, at 4:30 am I still felt like I only knew a handful of the pilgrims. After a fairly uneventful flight (except ear popping) we arrived in Wroclaw at 10:30, still weary. It wasn’t long before the bus came to take us to our final destination Krakow, where our parish was waiting to welcome us. After a bit of waiting around, we were assigned our families, while the boys trudged their way towards the school they would call home to for the next week. Ashlee, Sarah- Jane and I were collected by our host Ela! We barely had time to breathe and leave down our luggage before our WYD experience finally began. First destination: Blonia Park, where the opening ceremony was taking place and we got a taste of the atmosphere, waving our flags madly to the infamous “Jesus Christ: You are my life”. The way home was a sea of blue, red and yellow backpacks, Krakow inundated with the crowds.
The food was limited for me, at least for the first night as the queues were absolutely enormous. Although we had food vouchers for participating outlets, so did the two other million pilgrims, so there was a bit of a backlog at the restaurants most days! However, our host family did provide us with a taste of Polish grub which was “interesting” to say the least. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed pickled cucumber and cabbage but I gave it a lash all the same! What’s more, I was utterly dumbfounded by the extraordinary generosity of a group of pilgrims from San Diego, who inadvertently ended up paying from a meal for Sarah- Jane and I in MacDonalds. He offered to put our order in with theirs in the ordering machine and when we offered to pay him back, well “no can do”. We spent the bones of two hours chatting, exchanging stories and well you guessed pronouncing those, ohh so difficult Irish names. (Yes, Tadgh really is a name!). It didn’t take long to find “The Irish Pub” either and I felt right at home when I saw “Mná” and “Fir” on the restrooms. Indeed lots of nationalities navigated to the pub because of our renowned “craic”. The “Fields of Athenry” got its obligatory rendition as well and you could hear it for miles away.
The weather was variable, extremely hot some days but unfortunately, as a consequence there were occasions when the heavens opened. However our group was aptly prepared with custom made rain jackets instead of t-shirts. We’re well used to it in the Emerald Isle! Soaring temperatures coincided with the Vigil at the “Fields of Mercy” campus misericordia Krakow. It was a fair trek with all the camping gear when we arrived unscathed, albeit exhausted. Although we arrived early in our allocated sector I soon learned space is at an absolute premium as “The Spanish Inquisition” started and I had to ensure there was adequate space for my sleeping bag. It was a kaleidoscope of nationalities, with flags from every country being worn and waved by the millions. It was truly mind-blowing.
I have so many memories of World Youth Day: Being overcome by the atmosphere and joy of the pilgrims, seeing soldiers randomly dancing with pilgrims, Singing Irish songs at the top of my lungs despite being tone deaf and sounding like a crow, Ger asking our tour guide for a selfie , Getting famous on Polish television, Seeing relics of Saint John Paul II, Getting lost ( which incidentally happened to me quiet often, thank God for Ashlee!), Swapping my Irish hat in exchange for a Columbian one, High fiving literally everybody, Waking up to “Jen dobry” at 6:00am on the morning of the Vigil, Going through our hosts wedding album and being enthralled by their beautiful photographs, Trying and failing miserably to get sleep on the night of the Vigil, Sitting down for catechesis with Fr. Sean while walking to the vigil site, Our last night of craic in Wroclaw! One of the most prayerful times was when Pope Francis lit his candle in the dark and then all the pilgrims lit their candles from the one light, which spread across the darkness of Campus Misericordia.
We kneeled in an awesome silence in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament which the majority of pilgrims couldn’t see but could feel the presence.
The catechesis in the morning’s were also really inspiring and there’s nothing that will make you wake up more than singing “I love Jesus better than ice-cream and ice-cream’s pretty good”, all actions included.
I have made friends for life and am eternally grateful to everyone for this life defining experience. At the final Mass, Pope Francis told us that “World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on.” Then to much excitement, before leaving he announced that the next WYD will be in 2019 in Panama – I can’t wait and am praying that I will be lucky enough to join a group again or maybe even go as a volunteer. Pope Francis told us not to be afraid. He said; ‘People may judge you to be dreamers, because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded. Don’t be discouraged: with a smile and open arms, you proclaim hope and you are a blessing for our one human family, which here you represent so beautifully! I certainly saw loads of smiles, and we were one global family, a massive Catholic church and we left Krakow different people. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” is the phrase that rang in my mind on the way home.
Our friends from San Diego had a motto which I am going to abide by for faith and for life “Always Forward, Never Backward, “Go bun i gconaí, ar ais go deo arís”.