Europe has been Christian for centuries, but I don't think it has seen anything like World Youth Day, 2016! Almost two million young people from all over the world met with Pope Francis in Poland. My group of 105, comprised of youth from Southern California Neo-Catechumenal communities, danced and sang our way from Budapest to Krakow.
We touched down in Europe at Frankfurt Airport on Thursday, July 21, 2016. Marching through the airport to change planes, we began our pilgrimage with prayers and songs which attracted the attention and admiration of fellow travelers. I don't know how many other pilgrims witnessed us, but many there, including Moslems, smiled and videoed us as we passed.
We began our bus ride in Hungary visiting some of its holy places, like St. Stephen's Basilica, and the birthplace of St. Martin of Tours. We learned a bit of its history and saw the effects of recent Communist domination in its citizens. We did our best to cheer them up by our musical evangelizing.
In Austria, we saw more beautiful churches, as well as palaces and royal gardens. Here the onlookers joined in our dance circles and we all had a lot of fun. Some were not aware that we were en route to see the Pope. Some thought that we were putting on some kind of theatrical performance, but we told them that we were expressing the joy that comes from our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One guy asked me if we were really Catholic! The police who had at first tried to stop us escorted us through the streets at the end of the day.
It was in Prague, Czech Republic, that many of our youth had their best experience. After visiting the Church where the renowned Infant is venerated, we got caught in a heavy rainstorm. But, soaked as we were, we danced and sang through it! The discomfort could not dampen our exuberance! It was joy beyond belief as we did not care about anything except our praising God at that special moment that could not ever be repeated!
In Poland we visited Auschwitz, the only place where we did not dance. We went to the birthplace of St. John Paul II and to Czestochowa to see the "Black Madonna," as well as the “Divine Mercy” Basilica. On Saturday, July 31, the vigil of World Youth Day, my group camped near a jumbo screen so we could watch His Holiness and the presentation that the Church prepared for us. We saw touching personal testimonies, a ballet representing various religious themes, and joined in prayers with the universal church. It was Church under the stars with flags from all over the world and millions of worshippers!
We, my group with the rest of the youth, applauded the large visible police presence. Throughout the night, we celebrated, danced, sang, and meeting other young people from all over the globe. The colors of all the flags flying in the morning sun promised us the peace that could come when brothers and sisters unite around Jesus. It was a spectacular assembly, like an army armed with spiritual weapons — too large for any building! Pope Francis celebrated Mass for us in this open-air church.
The next day, those of us in the Neo-Catechumenal Way, met with our founder, Kiko Arguello. We were about 15% of the World Youth Day attendees. He made a call for religious vocations and about 3,000 responded.
The following day would be our last full day in Europe. We felt like Peter, James, and John, at the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Peter suggested building tents, meaning that he wanted never to leave because the experience was so fulfilling. But our faith is to be shared and spread.It is not for ourselves alone that God gives us such experiences. We must tell the world that such peace, joy, and love are possible, that resurrection from the dead will happen to those who follow the Lord. This is the good news!