Rain. Mud. No reliable public transportation to speak of. But despite the conditions, the millions of young Catholics gathered in Poland for World Youth Day 2016 were all smiles and laughter, full of joy.

That’s because they were here, not on vacation, but on pilgrimage.

“Everybody had songs they were singing. Everywhere you went you just got in this sea of people having a great time. And the vibe was so good even when buses got shut down, trams got shut down, when it started to rain, or you couldn’t get to where you wanted to go as quick as you thought. It was okay, because you were just among friends the whole time, like 2 million friends.”

Fr. Joshua Mayer was the chaplain for a group of 42 people from the Diocese of Gallup who traveled to Poland for World Youth Day. The week-long event is an international Catholic gathering held once every two or three years in various host countries, and millions of youth from nearly every country on earth attend each time.

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Photo credit: St. Mary’s Youth Group Facebook page

The group from the Diocese came primarily from St. Mary Parish in Farmington, NM, and was comprised of 28 young people and 14 parents. Norm Georgina is the leader of the youth group at St. Mary, and has led a pilgrimage to each of the past four World Youth Days. For two years leading up to the event, he has the young people fundraise to get the money to go, and he makes sure everyone realizes the true purpose of the trip.

“This one we set up more as a true pilgrimage than the rest of them. It wasn’t so much sightseeing, and just the reaction from kids in years past has been overwhelming…it’s something that you can’t get in the parish, you know? They meet millions, thousands of kids from all over the world, and it’s really something else.”

For Father Mayer, a young priest in his second year since ordination, the main challenge presented by the trip was the effort of keeping everyone focused spiritually. It’s a challenge he says he reflected on and addressed head on, day after day.

“At World Youth Day the program is already set by the Pope and everybody who’s planning it, and by the Lord. The Lord has something that he wants for all the people that are making the pilgrimage to Krakow and back. So it seemed to me that the job of a spiritual director is to highlight what that program is, to help the pilgrims identify ‘what are we doing today and why?’”

There was a special significance to setting the event in Poland. 2016 is part of the Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. And it was in Poland that a message of Divine Mercy was conveyed to a nun, now Saint Faustina, in the early 20th century. So too was this country home to Saint John Paul II, the Pope who would spread this message of mercy, and under whose papacy World Youth Day was first started in 1985.

Along with visiting the convents where St. Faustina lived and the square where John Paul II would deliver audiences when he was Archbishop of Krakow, the group stopped at various shrines and monasteries, and made a morning trip to the Holocaust site at Auschwitz. Father Mayer called this portion of the trip a “heavy day”.

“Entering into the darkness that can come out of the human person and entering into the evils that we’re capable of, that was where having a spiritual director on the trip was really necessary, because I was able to help our youth and grownups and myself kind of process what we’d been through. Just being witnesses to the atrocities that occurred there, and helping us pray with that and bring that up to the Lord.”

Francine Briones also remembers the somber visit to the former death camp.

“I’ve been asked to describe that since coming back. I have said that I wanted to leave, every moment that I was there I wanted to get out. But I knew that I had to stay because I knew that it was important that I saw what happened. It was heavy, but everyone was very somber, and I think it was very impactful, and I think it was a good stop.”

Briones is a junior at the University of New Mexico, but she’s belonged to the youth group at St. Mary for nearly her whole life. She made the journey to World Youth Day with her parents and two siblings. After the event’s conclusion, the whole group made their way to Italy for a few days, and Briones recalls a moment in Rome, on the last day, where she became aware of the beauty of shared experiences with loved ones.

Riding the gondolas in Venice, Italy.

Riding the gondolas in Venice, Italy.

“We had time to go off on our own – you know, we could break off and have free time. So obviously all of us kids could have split off and gone with our friends, and we did that sometimes, but we also took the opportunity to go off as a family and eat or go to Mass together…Our family went off and we went to dinner at this cute little Italian pizzeria that we found up a side street. We just sat there and we talked for about 3 hours, just reminiscing about the trip so far.”

Billy Pat Heinen also made the trip with his mother and two of his siblings. For him, family represented a bittersweet aspect of the pilgrimage. They received news of his grandmother’s death as they were on their way to Poland, and it nearly caused his mother to back out at the last minute.

“My dad said no! That is exactly what Mom would have wanted. And I’ll tell you one thing, my grandma was 90-something years old. She had Alzheimer’s or something like that. But she still remembered how to say her prayers, how to receive Communion, how to go to Confession, and she remembered all of that, that’s how strong in faith that woman was. So she would have said ‘I am so glad that you are going to this pilgrimage, and I hope you have the best time ever, hon’. That’s what she would have said.”

Still, he remembers feeling awful on the flight to Poland; trying to sleep, not wanting any more bad news. Something else added to his dark mood – aside from his friends, the plane was filled with a huge group from Puerto Rico. They were loud and didn’t speak in a way he could understand.

But then, something special happened. The Puerto Ricans started singing.

“They start praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet in Spanish, which I woke up to part of it and it was beautiful. It was amazing,” he recalls. “You’d always know where the Puerto Ricans were, because they were so joyful. And it kind of spread. The Puerto Ricans, and the Italians man, they were just so happy, and it was so contagious that you couldn’t help but get that way, you know? It was just – so much joy there.”

This joy soon turned infectious, to the point where every person in the youth group noticed. It swept them up and carried them for the rest of the trip. This sense of joy stayed, even when it began to rain in Poland, and keep raining, turning the ground and fields to mud. Then, the presence of so many people effectively shut down the transportation system in Krakow, so that most traveling had to be done by foot. Fr. Mayer recalls many days where the group walked over 12 miles, tolerating blisters and empty stomachs before reaching their next meal or place of rest.

But is you were to watch these young people, or any of the millions of young Catholics, you would never see a hint of despondency.

“That’s a condensed experience of life. And just to see, with my group, and a lot of groups from all over the world experiencing the same thing, like these are the people I would love to walk this path with all the time,” said Fr. Mayer. “The experience there really is just meeting almost 2 million of your family that you didn’t know you had.”

Mass at the English center. Photo credit: Fr. Josh Mayer

Mass at the English center. Photo credit: Fr. Josh Mayer

Each person from the group had a favorite moment, although they all note the day when Pope Francis led all of the attendees in the Stations of the Cross, with actors performing each station live for all to see. On another day, the group attended a two-hour evening session of Adoration, music, and reflections led by American Bishop Robert Barron.

Father Mayer laughs as he recounts the words of Pope Francis one night.

“He would also make these unscheduled appearances at John Paul II’s window in Krakow, and he would address the youth that were on the street right there. And something that he kind of said repeatedly – the first time he showed up that Wednesday night, it was unplanned, and he said ‘youth, your job is not to go to sleep tonight, your job is to create chaos in the city, but chaos in the name of Christ.’”

Of course, this was not meant to be physical chaos, but a kind of spiritual and emotional exuberance.

“So basically this invitation he always has for us just to love radically, and to love whoever we see in front of us, and to see Christ in all people, and to see Christ in every circumstance,” says Father Mayer. “Seeing the Lord in front of you, chasing him, and loving him, and not worrying about maybe all the practicalities that can weigh us down in the society we’ve built up around us.”

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Sure enough, the group from Poland followed this invitation to chaos, to joy, in spreading the Gospel message of love and mercy, even as they returned to normal life in the United States.

Now back at college in Farmington, Heinen has taken the spirit of World Youth Day to heart.

“It was such a joyful experience that you couldn’t help but smile, and laugh, and sing, and act maybe a little crazy. But that’s what the Catholic Church and religion is all about, is joy. You’re here, God gave you life. That’s something to be happy about in itself!”

Briones, too, feels rejuvenated.

“To see our faith on display in that way, it will set your heart on fire.”

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