I’ve always had trouble transitioning home after awesome experiences. On great weekend retreats as a young adult, I would spend the week after not really sure what to do. I would be a bit moody, and often find myself in conflict with a loved one. One of the things this did over the years was cause me to build up emotional barriers, to make these experiences easier to deal with, both while being there, and then again when coming home.
World Youth Day won’t let me do that.
The thing about it, is that it’s just so big. I reflected on the multitude of blessings in ‘To be Blessed’, and I can’t stop thinking about them. There are Catholics who go on once in a lifetime sorts of pilgrimages for just one of the opportunities we had in Krakow, and we ran into so many that I lost count! With any experience like this, there’s the temptation to try to recreate it, re-capture it, and re-make it at home. I know this temptation. I remember back when I was a fairly young youth minister, I took a particularly powerful experience of praise and worship, and tried to force it on a group of young people who had other expectations and spiritual needs, and without getting into too many details I can safely say it was probably the worst evening of ministry in my career. I was trying to forcibly jam my past emotions and experiences into a present that didn’t call for them. Even worse, I was doing so for my own satisfaction.
Coming home, I’m faced with the same temptation, to force everyone I spend time with to sit through endless stories, videos, and photos of the experience, without really asking if they are interested, or if this will make a difference, or to post endless World Youth Day follow ups on social media when really all I’m doing for myself is trying to keep the immediate experiences of the journey fresh.
None of this is to say that I mean that everything should just go on, business as usual, with nothing different in my life. That would be a waste. In fact, one of the most challenging parts of the experience was hearing Pope Francis (I’m going to paraphrase) command us to go home and not waste this amazing opportunity we have had the gift of participating in. When you sit there, in a crowd of 2.5 million other Catholics, and the Pope himself tells you not to go home and do the same old things, and to see ‘couch potatoes’ in the faith, it’s a pretty big kick in the pants. Not only that, but we aren’t coming home totally the same people. Karen and I talked about it on the flight, about how we were going to live when we got home. How would we deal with any backlash on social media after being more open about our faith in a public setting than either of us has before? How would we find or create ways to give and receive mercy at home?
The last revelation I’d like to share here, is that the answer is within the experience. Everything at World Youth Day was so big. The crowds, the passion and joy of the pilgrims, the experience with our families in Days in the Diocese, the ‘celebrities’ (whether the relics of Saints, the Pope, or the big name Catholics like Bishop Barron). It’s impossible not to recognize that I could never recreate the fullness of the experience at home… I’m just too small for that. I don’t mean it in a negative way, simply in a pragmatic one. We were standing in a crowd that was bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced, and still, the 2.5 million of us still only made up about ⅕ of 1% of the entire Catholic Church. And yet, among all of these people, the bigness of what we were celebrating was undeniable, and keeps popping up over and over.
Rand’s testimony about her life in Syria, this story of Christina Shabo, an Iraqi refugee, born under a tree in a refugee camp, who was at World Youth Day and prays regularly for those who have killed some of her family members and destroyed her home, or Bishop Barron’s reflection on World Youth Day, calling the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the celebration he presided over “one of the great experiences of my 30 years as a priest”.
While at times being such a small piece of such incredible ‘bigness’ is overwhelming, it’s also incredibly empowering. Among this crowd of little building blocks that each of us is, huge things are taking place. Among this crowd there are Catholics whose tiny actions, like Christina praying for Isis each day in her Chaplet of Divine Mercy, are bringing a grace and goodness to the world that are so much greater than any one of us, or even all of us together can accomplish. Perhaps the lives of St. Maximillian Kolbe and of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati illustrate this better than any. Kolbe was only one of millions killed at the hands of the Nazis, yet his one small act (small in the scale of what was happening, not in the sense that sacrificing one’s life is a small thing) saved others’ lives and brought enormous grace into one of the worst places in human history. Pier Giorgio’s life was not comprised of great and grand actions. It was his small ones, bringing his friends to Mass before climbing a mountain, giving his train fare to someone in need and walking home, spending a few hours with the sick, simply being joyful for his life and using his gifts, that led to his Beatification. His individual actions were so small, that his parents had no idea that there would be thousands of poor and sick showing up to his funeral, and similarly, the crowds of individuals who came to celebrate his life had no idea he was a Frassati (a powerful and influential family). Yet in all this smallness, God made his life into a great light for the rest of the world.
In our day to day lives it is easy to want the big. As a teacher I want to be popular, I want my students to be the best, I want great test scores. As a youth minister I want crowds at youth group, I want to speak to large groups. As a musician I want to be popular, I want to lead the choir. As a blogger I want thousands to read my words. In this light, I am so grateful for the smallness of being an individual at World Youth Day, because it is such a wonderful and uplifting reminder. None of us are in this world to be ‘big’, but rather to do the small things God has empowered us to do, and let Him make them great. I’ll end with a line from Christina Shabo’s story: “As powerless as you feel as an individual, when you connect with other people who have that same passion that have that same desire, God works wonders”.
- Ryan Fox
A few weeks ago Karen and I were talking about what it would be like to live north of the Arctic Circle. Karen is somewhat solar powered and the thought of the difficulties that months of darkness would cause her were pretty significant, but after a few moments of imagining the long winter night, the conversation turned to what the spring would be like. Each day getting a little longer, heading to the perpetual daylight of summer. We talked about how the summer would be amazing, but that it just wouldn't be the same as the building relief heading towards the days of the midnight sun.
That's what WYD has been like for me. Each day has been filled with blessings and experiences that in and of themselves are awesome. The cathedral carved into the salt mines, being blessed by relics of St. JPII, celebrating together with the other Canadians with relics of 5 Saints, including JPII, Sr. Faustina, and Maximilian Kolbe, a prayer service with 18000 Americans lead musically by Steve Angrisano, Sarah Hart, John Angotti, and Tony Melendez, adoration and an amazing talk by Bishop Robert Barron, seeing the blood stained cassock JPII was wearing when he was shot, praying before the original image of Divine Mercy and receiving reconciliation, welcoming Pope Francis to Kraków, the beautiful artistic meditations at the stations of the cross, praying before the relics of Pier Giorgio Frassati and receiving a relic from the Dominicans… and that list doesn't include Days in the Diocese!
As amazing as all these experiences have been, they have been separated by experiences of great difficulty. On Tuesday we spent hours trying to find food after the opening ceremonies. On Wednesday we were pressed, pushed, shoved, and overheated by throngs of pilgrims, and had to deal with the jarring mentality of ‘me first’ that seems inevitable of an uncontrolled mob trying to push their way to the front of a ‘line’ (I use that term very loosely) only moments after an hour and a half of peaceful meditation and reconciliation. On Thursday we waited for hours in the rain for the vigil, and of course today, during the vigil we've been hiding from the sun however we can along with 1,000,000+ others while we wait for the Pope.
Please don't get me wrong, these aren't complaints (and you WYD veterans, I know you have stories of what I'm sure were even more trials in other years). As difficult as much of this trip has been, especially for a not - really youth who likes solitude a lot more than crowds, the challenges and suffering have only increased the blessings. Having received mercy, I immediately had the chance to practice it in the mob at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary. The hour of peace and tranquility with the relics of Pier Giorgio were so much more peaceful because they were also an escape from the heat and the crowds. The waiting in the heat and rain has made the main events and national celebrations that much more exciting, kind of like how the waiting for Christmas morning is a defining part of the experience, or that first cold beer after a few days in the backcountry is the best and most refreshing one you've ever had.
So much as our discussion of how an experience of Arctic spring would be diminished without the darkness of the Arctic winter, the challenges frame, and ultimately add great meaning to the blessings. It seems especially fitting in this year of mercy to reflect on this. This year especially we are being called to be the rest at the end of the long walk, the tarp that shades the sunstroke, and the cold beer that relieves the weary traveller at the end of a hard journey.
- Ryan Fox
My second revelation on my WYD pilgrimage, as obvious as it is, given the theme, is that I came to Kraków to be healed. I don't mean any deep spiritual wounds, or hidden childhood traumas… I'm blessed enough not to have any, although I know there are many here who came to heal those deep wounds. No, I mean the little daily ones. The small sins, frustrations, and harms we give and take that build up over time. Sort of a spiritual death by 1000 cuts.
Yesterday Karen and I took part in the Pilgrimage of Mercy. We were blessed to pray before the relics of St. JPII, then we walked from his church to the sanctuary of the divine mercy, praying the chaplet along with 15 meditations on mercy. We finished by entering through the doors of mercy, praying before the original Divine Mercy image, then participating along with thousands of others in the sacrament of reconciliation.
In the evening we got to listen to Bishop Robert Barron speak about why the cross was needed to Christ to break through the heavy weight of sin and heal the world. He taught us that the hard work of forgiveness is to face our sins, attack them head on, and let Christ defeat them. Never have I experienced this more than at confession in the fields of reconciliation in front of St. Faustina's sanctuary. A wonderful priest heard my confession then spoke some of the most profound, but simple words I've ever heard. He told me that everything I confessed, he also confessed, and maybe even more seriously. He went on to pray my penance with me before absolution.
Never have I experienced a confession like it, but his actions lived out Bishop Barron's words so perfectly. We are broken people, but broken people possess the divine power, through the cross, to heal broken people. We only need the courage to share our brokenness and enter into mercy with one another.
Right now the world needs mercy so badly. We are dying a death by 1000 cuts. Today I listened to Archbishop Mafi of Tonga refer to the harm global warming is doing to the people his small nation. Two days ago we heard the tragic news of the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel. Mass shootings are so common in the US we barely register all of them. Terrorism around the world continues. Young people are more disenfranchised than ever. The list goes on. It's hard not to despair. However, the truth Fr. Barron referred to gives us the power to do something, because as Jesus was broken on the cross to heal us, we are broken people who can heal broken people.
In his Hardcore History series, Dan Carlin refers to a time when the Roman Empire faced a nearly existential threat because soldiers who were converting to Christianity were refusing to fight. They believed so much in peace that they simply couldn't take up violence even against their enemies, and the army was falling apart because of only a handful of courageous and merciful peacemakers. There are over 1,000,000,000 Catholics in the world today, and countless more people of good will across the faiths and world views. As Pope Francis said today, change is possible. If a few hundred soldiers laying down their arms can shake one of the great empires, what can hundreds of thousands of merciful, broken, peacemakers do in our world today?
I'll finish with this thought. When Pope Francis car was stopped in a crowd and many were approaching, there was great fear of an attack, but he had the courage to be not afraid, to see into the crowd, and reach out to touch and bless a child among them (thank you Bishop Barron for the anecdote).
St. JPII, pray for us to have courage. St. Faustina pray for us to be people of mercy.
- Ryan Fox
I'm here at my first WYD, and up until about 3 days ago I couldn't have told you why. The best I can say about deciding to come to Kraków is that I was watching the closing Mass in Brazil and I kind of felt like I should go to Poland. When someone would ask why I was going (I don't even qualify as youth!) I couldn't really give an intelligent answer.
I think it's times like these, when we follow the whispers of our hearts, that we enter into a space for revelation. It just so happens that the revelation on Taber of the transfigured Christ was the theme of our Days in the Diocese that we spent in the city of Jaslo, in the diocese of Rzeszow (not by any planning on my part, it just all for together).
Now, before we left I had a little bit of a plan to lose a few pounds on this trip, thinking light meals, lots of walking, etc. It turns out our amazing host family, and the people of Jaslo had a different plan for us. Everyone we met greeted us with incredibly warm hospitality, almost always in the form of a meal. We feasted on their hospitality for the entire meal.
We all know the special feeling that comes along with being treated by someone else, but when the hospitality goes to the extent we received it, the feeling starts to change. Shy of them coming to visit us in Canada, and having a nonstop party for them that would rival the wedding at Cana or the celebration the father threw for the prodigal son, there is simply no way for us to repay our host family for their warm welcome and generosity. It's literally impossible to adequately do for them what they did for us. At the same time, it was their expression of kindness to us, and we learned very quickly that trying to reject it, or even just temper its extravagance, was an insult and a rejection to them.
It was their kindness that brought me to my first revelation, at my first WYD. This is exactly the mystery of God's mercy and love. I am fully incapable of adequately returning it, but still called to fully accept it, in all its human impossibility. Not only that, but I'm also called to pay on forward, and do my best, as imperfect as it is to share the same love and mercy with the world and people around me.
So, in the first of what are hopefully a few revelations of what I came to WYD for I came to be fed. Literally by the world class food (as a sign of Poland's world class hospitality), and spirituality by God's mercy, the joy of the pilgrims, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the abundant prayers of St. JPII, Sr. Faustina, Bl. Pier Giorgio, and the multitude of others in this city of saints.
- Ryan Fox
I’ve considered myself a pilgrim since I was 19. Why? Because in 2002 I went on my first pilgrimage to Toronto for WYD.
World Youth Day is a massive gathering of young people who desperately are searching for God and come to encounter him and celebrate with the Pope. My life has forever been changed because of these gatherings, and countless others have been as well.
I have followed that first trip by preparing for and going on mission or a pilgrimage of some sort for the last 14 years:
2002 - WYD in Toronto
2005 - WYD in Cologne, Germany
2006 - Mission in Peru
2008 - WYD in Sydney, Australia
2011 - WYD in Madrid, Spain
2013- WYD in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Mission in Maceio, Brazil
Brothers and sisters, we are pilgrims every day of our lives if we admit our brokenness and need for a healer. The question is simple. Can I be real, honest, and vulnerable to those I trust to seek help, forgiveness, healing and consolation? Will I simply allow God permission to work in my confusion, hurt, pain, and indifference?
Recently, the answer is I haven’t. It is just that simple. But, now upon reflection, I see God has taught me at least fourteen lessons for these 14 years:
I do not need to be away to be a pilgrim, as much as my heart yearns to be. A pilgrim is on a holy journey, seeking answers to questions they often don’t even know to ask. A pilgrim is someone who through challenges is cracked open to grace to nourish one's soul. A pilgrim is someone not at their destination, but intentionally drawing closer day by day.
What lesson is God teaching you on your journey this day?
- Colm Leyne