Traveling to World Youth Day
by Lauren Walter, Upper School Religion Teacher
This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day with Pope Francis. The trip came together in a most unexpected manner, beginning with an invitation to volunteer at World Youth Day by two young Dominican friars who visited my Religion classes here at Holy Child last year.
While I was at first very skeptical that I could go, over the course of two months, I slowly saw the details fall seamlessly into place. This was largely because of the support of the Holy Child community, who encouraged me to take the invitation seriously and to say yes to it. The school even helped with my travel expenses so I could receive this experience to deepen and develop my role as a religion teacher. With these factors at play, I could not say no. I packed my bags with a spirit of curiosity and expectation, wondering what might be in store for me during this pilgrimage to Krakow.
When I arrived in Krakow, I was amazed at the beauty of the architecture and the history that exuded from the edifices of the buildings. Seeing sites like Wawel Castle and Cathedral, Poland’s cultural icon built on the bank of the Vistula river, and St. Mary’s Basilica, the Polish Gothic church tucked in the corner of Krakow Old Town’s square, were visible reminders of how deeply Catholicism has informed Polish history and culture. It was this union of faith and culture that formed the lives of Polish saints such as St. Faustina Kowalska and St. John Paul II. It was fitting that Pope Francis chose this beautiful city to host the 2016 World Youth Day events, with the theme, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7) during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. It was this theme of mercy that painted the lives of these saints, prompting them to live in total trust in the Father’s mercy and giving them courage to perform heroic acts of mercy for others.
I, too, experienced this mercy during my days in Krakow, a mercy that slowly revealed to me my purpose for being there. It began with my volunteering for the English speaking events held at Tauron Arena, run by the Knights of Columbus. I was asked to help the Sisters of Life coordinate the hospitality room for the speakers who addressed the thousands of young people who came to the arena for Mass, talks, and workshops each day. I had the pleasure of meeting many well-known speakers, many of whom work with teens and young adults, encouraging them to live their faith more profoundly. It was an amazing opportunity to get to know people who share the same heart for helping young people grow in their faith. I began to see how providential this trip really was, as it seemed that the more the days went on, every detail was so perfectly suited to reminding me of my own experience of faith as a young person, and the challenge to allow that to affect how I teach our students here at Holy Child.
Among the speakers who impacted me were Piotr and Teresa Małecki, a married couple who was friends with St. John Paul II from the time he was a young parish priest through his papacy. I had a few precious moments with them to hear some stories about the young Karol Wojtyla, long before he was known by the world. It was this man who would later become the pope who stirred in me, as well as many young people, the desire to live an authentic faith. It was a gift to reignite my connection with St. John Paul II and his witness that reached the hearts of young people.
While at Tauron Arena, I also had the great surprise of running into some of our Holy Child community! As I went up the arena elevator on an errand, I ran into none other than sophomore Emme Treacy. We were amazed that we saw one another in those huge crowds, thousands of miles from Holy Child. Emme told me where the Our Lady of Mercy group was sitting and when I went to find them, I saw several Holy Child alumna, a parent, and even Fr. Chris Seith, who has helped serve our HC community over the past couple of years. It was an amazing, unforeseen encounter, and was thrilled to see them.
In my free time, I went with other volunteers to some of the sacred sites of Krakow, including the Divine Mercy chapel where the world famous image of the Divine Mercy image resides. There lies the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska, the saint who received the message of Divine Mercy from Christ himself, resting beneath the image. The chapel was packed with people from all over the world, processing forward to venerate the image. From the chapel we made our way to the opening Mass for World Youth Day with Cardinal Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, and former secretary of St. John Paul II. It was an incredible experience seeing hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world praying together. It was a beautiful reminder of the tradition and communion of the Church, and the sense of belonging that comes with being part of something so much bigger than oneself, especially something so universal and eternal. This was another experience that refreshed within me what I want to share with students, that the human desire to belong, especially in a young person, is the very thing that leads us deeper into communion with God and neighbor in the life of the Church.
In addition to these experiences in Krakow, I was also able to go to other sites in Poland like Czestochowa, home of the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and Wadowice, hometown of St. John Paul II. These experiences also reminded me that while the Church is over two thousand years old, she is also alive and young.
After returning from Poland and entering into this school year, I reflect upon my experience seeing that I received a huge gift that is meant to be shared. It was first a reminder of my own journey of faith and the different ways God has worked in my life over the years, especially in my youth. This is the best gift I could receive for my teaching, because I cannot give to the students what I don’t possess myself. While this is a lofty challenge, I also see how much God provided this throughout my trip. Now the task is to allow it to more deeply transform me and inform my ability to communicate the beauty of our faith, the same faith that rests at the core of our Holy Child charism and mission. A word of gratitude to our HC community for their generosity and support. Thank you for being a source of God’s loving providence in my life and for helping me become a better teacher.