Krakow, Poland, Jul 26, 2016 / 11:05 am (CNA).- Many special moments are anticipated during Pope Francis' visit to Poland this week for World Youth Day, especially considering his visit to Auschwitz and his meeting with 10 Holocaust survivors.
However one thing that could easily slip through the cracks in the lead-up, but will likely be a major part of what shapes the trip, are his evening dialogues with youth from the balcony of the Bishop’s Palace. Every night when he comes back to Krakow after the day’s activities, Pope Francis will appear on the palace balcony to address youth gathered below.
Given Francis’ spontaneous nature and the personal connection he forms when engaging with groups in more intimate settings, the off-the-cuff conversations will likely be what sets the tone for the trip, more so than his scheduled activities.
The tradition was initiated by St. John Paul II, who spoke to youth from the balcony every time he visited his homeland as Pope. John Paul II, who was originally from Wadowice, Poland, moved to the Bishop’s Palace in Krakow Aug. 10, 1944, while studying at the Archdiocese of Krakow’s clandestine seminary, forced to go underground when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
He was ordained a priest by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha in the archbishop’s private chapel at the palace, and he stayed there when he was elected bishop of the local metropolitan diocese in 1958. Then-cardinal Wojtyla later resided in the palace as the Archbishop of Krakow until his Oct. 16, 1978, election as the Bishop of Rome.
As Pope, St. John Paul II returned to Poland nine times in 1979, 1983, 1987, twice in 1991, 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2002. During each of his pilgrimages to Krakow, the Polish Pope would stay at the Bishop’s Palace, and would come out on the balcony each night to greet and speak with youth gathered below.
The famous window from which he spoke is located just above the entrance to the building. A statue of the St. John Paul II was gifted to the diocese in 1980 and now stands in the courtyard below. His evening chats with Polish youth came to define John Paul’s visits to Krakow, and many who weren’t necessarily young would also come out to hear what the Vicar of Christ had to say.
The taxi driver on the way into Krakow said that as a child, he used to attend the evening balcony talks, and that the discussions formed a unique, special environment. He noted that John Paul would frequently tell jokes and jest with the youth, creating a casual, open environment.
Benedict XVI also imitated the gesture during his visit to Poland in 2006, and now Pope Francis will do the same during WYD, continuing the legacy of the great Polish Pope, which is still blatantly alive and thriving throughout the country.
St. John Paul II established World Youth Day in 1985; the first event was held in Rome in 1986. Since then it has occurred in various cities throughout the world, typically every three years.
World Youth Day in Krakow officially kicks off July 25 and lasts through July 31, with Pope Francis arriving July 27. It will be Pope Francis’ second World Youth Day during his pontificate.
Other highlights to watch out for will be his gestures, since he speaks louder with his actions than his words. Especially noteworthy will be his actions during his visit to Auschwitz, where he will sit in silence at Block 11, and will meet with 10 Holocaust survivors as well as 25 “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Francis will likely also make a lot of references to his predecessor St. John Paul II, given the fact that he is not only in the great Saint’s homeland, but also given the fact that the Polish Pope is still so widely recognized and revered in Polish society, even for those who aren’t necessarily religious.
Apart from these highlights, the rest should be a fairly normal WYD scene. However, while Francis’ schedule is packed with different events, we can’t leave out the possibility of at least a few papal surprises.