[Austen Ivereigh] World Youth Day, which begins officially this afternoon in Kraków, Poland, is an extraordinary phenomenon of the modern Church: not just an exuberant, global celebration of Catholic faith, but a powerful experience of the inter-connectedness of the Body of Christ worldwide.
In his video message released last week, the Pope described the Day — in reality five-days long — as “a mosaic of different faces: so many races, languages, peoples and cultures — but all united in the name of Jesus who is the face of Mercy”.
Media metaphors struggle to capture this idea with words like ‘festival’, ‘jamboree’, or even ‘the Catholic Woodstock’, and from the outside that captures something of its character.
But pilgrims come not so much to be entertained (although there is plenty of that) or to party (that happens too) as to experience the rare sensation of living, at least temporarily, in what St Augustine called ‘the City of God’.
Or as Pope Benedict XVI once put it, criticizing the tendency to report it as a kind of rock festival, WYD is not a “variant of modern youth culture” so much as the fruition of a “long exterior and interior path”.
In other words, it’s not the Church apeing the culture so much as evangelizing it — converting and transforming it, so as to offer a glimpse of the world as it should be.
Many Catholics who owe their faith — sometimes an actual conversion, but most often a rekindling of the flame, moving from outward observance to heartfelt adhesion — say that it’s this experience of communio that demonstrates to them that God’s grace is real.
It is a chance, as Christopher White of CV USA writes at Crux, to start again and rebuild from the ground up.
At WYD — first held in Rome in 1986 and every 2-3 years since then in a different city — racial and other barriers collapse. People are embraced as they are, not judged by their looks or their wealth. They delight in life lived simply and immediately. The days are framed by prayer, liturgy, and a chance to dig deep — through the catechetical sessions, this week with a record 800 bishops and 70 cardinals — from the wells of the Catholic tradition.
The event is energized by the arrival of the pope, who will touch down in Krakow airport tomorrow (Wednesday afternoon). But his first 24 hours — until he connects with the pilgrims on Thursday afternoon — will be a visit to Poland, rather than to WYD.
After a welcoming ceremony at the airport Wednesday, he will give a speech to Polish authorities, spend some time in private with Polish president Andrzej Duda, and then go on to meet Poland’s bishops in a closed-door session at Wawel cathedral.
In both cases, these will be opportunities to build bridges with both state and church authorities, and to deal with points of tension. In the case of the right-wing Duda government, the issues are likely to be immigration and ecology, issues with which the ruling Law and Justice Party has expressed disagreement with Pope Francis.
Meanwhile, many if not most of Poland’s bishops were among the fiercest critics of the pastoral direction taken by the synod in 2014-15, and some have accused Francis of lack of clarity or even of changing direction in his post-synod exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
But Francis may have other concerns to raise with the bishops, not least their close identification with the ruling party, which risks politicizing the Gospel.
But Francis and the Polish Church will be at one in foregrounding both God’s mercy — which is the theme of the visit — along with the legacy of St John Paul II. He will want to use both to speak to the pilgrims, and the world at large, about the challenges currently facing the western world such as terrorism and immigration.
For many Poles, St John Paul II is not just the greatest pope, but the template for all other popes — which is part of the explanation for the lukewarm reaction many have had to Francis.
Part of that could be put right on Thursday, when the pope will be helicoptered to the famous Jasna Gora monastery 90 miles from Kraków in Częstochowa, home to the ‘Black Madonna’, patroness of Poland, and a shrine visited by millions every year.
About 98 per cent of Poland’s 38 million inhabitants are baptized Catholics and around 40 per cent are Massgoers. As once was the case in Ireland, Church and nationality are intertwined.
Given that the Madonna is symbol of the country’s hard-fought-for nationality, and that the pope will celebrating the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland, the Mass he celebrates at the shrine will be an important moment for connecting with the Polish ‘holy faithful people of God’.
Thursday afternoon, Pope Francis will be raptorously received by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from 187 countries at a “welcoming ceremony” at Krakow’s Blonia Park. The tone is informal, and joyful — and most reporters expect plenty of spontaneous remarks by Pope Francis.
If the recent outbreak of violence in Europe — including this morning’s shocking killing of a priest — is on his mind, he may well use the opportunity to address the pilgrims on the topic.
Friday will be a sombre day. Francis will go for the first time to the notorious Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the morning, and in the afternoon, back in Krakow, he’ll lead pilgrims in the Way of the Cross.
Francis has decided not to speak at the extermination camp, but to silently recollect at this icon of institutional evil. His visit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the ‘saint of Auschwitz’, Maximilian Kolbe.
But as Marco Gallo narrates at Crux, the Pope has had plenty to say about the Holocaust in the past, both as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and as pope.
While in Auschwitz, Francis will meet a group of ten Holocaust survivors, and then greet 25 “Righteous among the Nations”, a title bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews during the Nazi extermination.
In the afternoon, he will visit a children’s hospital and give an address there. Expect touching gestures and scenes, which will teach as much as his words about mercy and the ‘culture of encounter’.
Then, in the evening, he leads the Way of the Cross in Jordan Park — always a moving occasion.
Saturday is an intense day for teaching on mercy. He’ll visit the Divine Mercy Shrine, associated forever with St Faustina Kowalska, a rural Polish girl who at the age of 19 had a vision of Jesus instructing her to join a convent.
Despite her illiteracy, Helena was eventually accepted by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and took the name Faustina, serving as a kitchen assistant and yard worker.
Her regular visions of Jesus, recorded in a diary, became the basis for the Divine Mercy devotion. She died at the convent aged 33 years, a year before the young Karol Wojtyla arrived in the same city to begin his university studies. Later Pope John Paul II canonized her and dedicated the Sunday after Easter to the devotion.
The Mass Francis will celebrate there for polish priests, seminarians and Religious, therefore, will be a privileged opportunity to connect the Year of Mercy to Sister Faustina’s devotion and St John Paul II’s teaching on mercy in Dives in Misericordia.
But he is also likely to have a few choice words about Sr Faustina’s poverty. Many Polish clergy, attached to the privileged status of the priesthood in Polish society, resent Francis’s calls for priests to shun luxurious living.
Before Mass he’ll hear pilgrims’ confessions in the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, and after Mass will have lunch with some of them at the Archbishopric.
In the afternoon, the focus will switch to the Campus Misericordiae — the Field of Mercy — outside Krakow, which will involve for most pilgrims a 10-mile walk.
There they will pitch their sleeping bags to await Pope Francis leading them in a prayer vigil.
The next morning, Sunday, will be the final liturgy, known as the “sending Mass” because it sends the pilgrims back to their home dioceses with invitations to build a better and more just world.
No one ever quite knows how many there will be at the final Mass, because numbers are swelled at the last minute.
Around 330,000 have registered as WYD pilgrims, but the final Mass could attract close to 1.5-2m, although no one knows if the violent acts of recent weeks will deter many.
The largest numbers, in descending order, are from Poland, Italy, France, Spain, USA, Germany, France, Ukraine, Portugal.
Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi said last week that “there are no particular concerns in Poland with regard to security” and that “no groups have withdrawn over security concerns.”
At the end of Mass the Pope announces where the next WYD will be. According to Inés San Martín at Crux, all bets are on Panamá.
After meeting with WYD volunteers and organizers on Sunday afternoon, there will be a farewell ceremony before departing back to Rome at 18:30.
[For all the latest on WYD, see the Crux special page].