World Youth Day: An Unforgettable Encounter in Poland
September 4, 2016
Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world flocked to Poland in late July for this year’s celebration of World Youth Day (WYD).
The event, held in the southern city of Cracow and nearby areas July 26-31, was led by Pope Francis and marked the largest international gathering in this country in the last several decades. Anywhere from 1 million to 2.5 million pilgrims took part in the main festivities at Cracow’s sprawling Błonia Park and on a huge field in the nearby village of Brzegi.
The jamboree was organized by the Roman Catholic Church to infuse young Catholics with fresh passion for their religion. Many of the pilgrims arrived in Poland a few days before the event. They stayed with host families in selected Polish archdioceses and dioceses from July 20 to 25 before heading for the main festivities in Cracow.
Pilgrims could choose from a list of 14 archdioceses and 27 dioceses. The average cost of a stay in a diocese was EUR 30, a reasonable price tag made possible by hundreds of people of goodwill who hosted the young pilgrims and provided them with accommodation and food. Many volunteers also helped their parish priests familiarize the pilgrims with Poland and its customs, culture and cuisine. This was particularly important because many of the pilgrims came to Poland from outside Europe.
The Days in the Dioceses helped prepare the pilgrims spiritually for the main celebrations in and around Cracow. They took part in multilingual prayer meetings and religious services, using the help of hundreds of volunteers from all over Poland.
This multicultural spiritual experience made a deep impression on the young pilgrims, many of them from Asia, Africa and South America. Many emphasized that, despite cultural differences and different customs, they felt at home in Poland and had no communication problems. Many also said the visit enabled them to broaden their intellectual and emotional horizons.
The main religious ceremonies, during which the pilgrims listened to the teachings of the pope as well as bishops from both Poland and abroad, were accompanied by hundreds of other events. One example was the Zone of Glory: Poland 1050 concert organized by the National Center for Culture. The name of the event referred to the 1,050th anniversary of Christianity in Poland, and the concert featured both Polish and foreign performers.
The Days in the Dioceses as well as the events in Cracow also included debates, art exhibitions and theatrical performances. Most of the cultural attractions were available to WYD participants for free.
One of the key attractions in Cracow in the run-up to World Youth Day was Cracovia Sacra Night, an event during which churches, monasteries and museums in Krakow enabled visitors to see some rarely exhibited documents and manuscripts.
The event’s official Maria: Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) exhibition at the city’s National Museum was available for a token entrance fee of zl.4. Ninety-four masterpieces of religious art by celebrated Italian, French, Dutch and German artists from the 11th to the 18th centuries—among them Donatello, Giotto di Bondone, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea Mantegna, Hans Memling and Peter Paul Rubens—were on display as part of the exhibition.
Social engagement and enthusiasm ran high throughout WYD. More than 1,500 volunteers, some of them from abroad, were on hand during the prayer meetings and other events associated with WYD. Pope Francis met with the volunteers on his last day in Poland; he thanked them and encouraged them to continue along the path of helping others selflessly.
While in Poland, Pope Francis visited Cracow, the Jasna Góra shrine to the Virgin Mary in Częstochowa, and the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. All these sites define Poles’ national identity. Cracow was once the capital of the country; Jasna Góra is a symbol of Polish Catholics’ fidelity to the Christian tradition; and Auschwitz-Birkenau is a site marked by the suffering and tragedy of the Holocaust at a time when Poland was occupied by Germany. The memory of World War II still plays an important part in how Polish people think about the past and the role of Germany in modern history.
Despite worries, this year’s World Youth Day in Poland was free from organizational glitches. The transport of pilgrims was efficient thanks to numerous additional rail and bus connections. Medical services were also up to scratch. Both civilian and military paramedics were involved, with dozens of ambulances and airlifts on standby. No major emergencies or incidents were reported.
Ensuring safety was a key challenge for authorities during WYD, especially as the Cracow festivities followed a series of terrorist attacks in Europe. No wonder then that security was a top priority for both Polish state institutions and the event’s church organizers. Polish intelligence services had identified potential threats and experts mapped out evacuation scenarios as well as contingency plans for neutralizing potential attackers long before WYD got under way.
Several dozen thousand uniformed police and military police officers as well as soldiers, firefighters and plainclothes security service officers oversaw the largest gatherings, including the event’s opening and final Masses. A no-fly zone was introduced over Cracow, Częstochowa and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was violated on one occasion by a small drone and then again by an attempted flight by a Russian aerobatic aircraft near Częstochowa. In both cases, the Polish air force made the intruders leave the zone and land in order to explain the reasons for violating the restrictions.
Every time a pope visits Poland, security services are put on alert and state institutions do an immense amount of organizational work. An army of volunteers is usually deployed as well.
Pope Francis’ route was changed several times during WYD for various reasons. For example, despite original plans, the pope went to Auschwitz and Częstochowa by car, and not by plane. According to those responsible for the pope’s safety, this was in line with a set of alternative plans drafted before the pontiff’s visit.
In all, the World Youth Day festivities in Cracow were calm and peaceful, and no major incidents occurred.
While in Poland, Pope Francis conveyed a powerful message of Christian mercy as he addressed the pilgrims in Cracow. He also called on the young people to stand up to violence, hatred and terror instead of being “couch potatoes” glued to “the screen of a cell phone.” He said they should step away from the “sofa” of comfort and not “confuse happiness with a sofa,” while fostering the values that Christianity is built on.
Pope Francis did not miss the chance to mention the current dramatic events in Syria and the Middle East as well as the tragedy of refugees from those areas. He urged people to follow the Christian virtue of mercy and welcome those who had lost their homes and the possibility to live a normal life as a result of wars and armed conflicts. The pope also called on the young people to show courage in face of the challenges of the modern times, which many commentators said was an apparent reference to the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II’s “Have No Fear” dictum.
The pope’s message was not only about words though. Francis’ visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was marked by silence. The pontiff did not give a speech there. But his silence was one of the most touching moments of his trip to Poland.
Overall, this year’s WYD was marked by deep reflection on human imperfection and weakness and on the tragedies of today’s world. But the festivities were also about the spontaneous joy and enthusiasm of the young Christians who came to Poland from all over the world.
World Youth Day is a global gathering of Catholic youth that takes place every two to three years and actually lasts several days. The tradition was begun by the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II in 1985. In subsequent years, the events were held in Santiago de Compostela in Spain (1989); Poland’s Czestochowa (1991); Denver, Colorado, in the United States (1993); the Philippine capital Manila (1995); Paris (1997); Rome (2000); Toronto, Canada (2002); Cologne, Germany (2005); Sydney, Australia (2008); and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2013).
This year’s World Youth Day in southern Poland was held for the 31st time.
The next World Youth Day will be held in 2019 in Panama.