Estimates ranged from 1 million to 3 million pilgrims in attendance for the 31st World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. Although that’s a substantial discrepancy in numbers, you would never know the difference between 1 or 2 million when immersed in a seemingly endless crowd of people. All things considered, the total number is really just a footnote to the major happenings of this international Catholic event.
I was fortunate enough to travel this WYD with a group of 5 talented individuals, focused on documenting the entire journey through photos and videos. We decided to name our group ‘PRAY WYD’ (which also stood as an acronym for ‘Pilgrims Raising Awareness for Youth’) and identified ourselves as a digital media team dedicated to promoting this event for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. With the idea that major news publications would already be covering the event through the standard reporting perspective, our goal was to capture the essence of World Youth Day and lead others to this experience by being pilgrims ourselves.
“…be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” -Pope Francis
The motto of our group was based on a saying by Pope Francis: “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” We were committed to telling the story of seeking Christ by actually walking the path. Pope Francis’ sayings are not based on mere symbolism, but genuine action. Smelling like sheep became a literal sense at times, as we were herded along with the masses of people during major events like the opening ceremony, papal visit, and closing mass. The flow of the crowds would come to a full halt while people were jammed tight with suffocating closeness.
How did people respond during these claustrophobic moments? With joy and patience. The drums of the Italians, the chants of the French, the high-fives of the Spanish, and the flags of all nations waving in the air. It calms the anxieties of being trampled and wipes away the discomforts of feeling trapped. You quickly find yourself clapping along and joining the cheers of everyone around you.
Our 6-day journey began in Wadowice, the hometown of St. John Paul II, and ended at Campus Misericordiae, where the closing mass with Pope Francis took place. Notable moments in between included a deeply moving reflection time during a 3.5-mile walk around the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, a Holy Spirit-filled adoration led by LA’s own Bishop Barron at the LifeTeen worship night, a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine where the deepest church in the world exists, and an encounter with Pope Francis while he heard confessions and celebrated mass at the Divine Mercy & JPII Sanctuaries. These spiritual experiences prepared our hearts to truly witnessing the power of WYD: the fire of love among God’s children.
Moving between locations was one of the biggest challenges for our group. We used nearly every method available (car, bus, train, and tram), but due to road closures and the overcrowding of public transit, the most effective route was often by walking. Traveling by foot aligned well with the ingredient of any fruitful pilgrimage: an enduring walk with Christ. We knew there would be hardships and hurdles, but our final 9-mile trek lugging loads of camera equipment and camping gear was grueling, to say the least.
Profoundly, the punishing hike led to an opportunity of seeing first-hand the total selflessness of local residents along the pilgrim path. It was an inspiring sight to see Polish people coming out of their homes to distribute water bottles and to spray mists of cool water on the pilgrims in the scorching heat. They were neither endorsed nor official volunteers of the WYD organizing committee; rather, they were just being good Samaritans extending a helping hand to their brothers and sisters in Christ. That act of love gave us pilgrims hope and strength to continue on.
When Pope John Paul II started World Youth Day back in 1984, he challenged “Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?” Since then, the youth have responded in a great way. An amazing example we consistently observed was in the presence of the Eucharist. People may have been loud with songs and chants outdoors, but the moment one walked inside a church, every individual maintained respect and silence for those in prayer and in reverence of Christ. There were never any rules of behavior governed to us as participants to WYD, so it was touching to see vast groups of youth entering and exiting with a prayerful heart.
One of the most beautiful parts of the entire WYD pilgrimage was the connections made with fellow pilgrims around the world. We met first-timers, an engaged couple, a solo-traveler, a group of multiple parishes, and even a group of multiple countries. Every one of them greeted us with smiles, took selfies with us, and exchanged souvenirs--- a common tradition of pilgrims during WYD. It was a glimpse into what world peace would look like today, and a small taste of heaven. Watching the streets being flooded with a diversity of people uniting together vividly affirmed how through Christ we are all one family. Walking the path to Jesus with others was the vision of JPII from the start, and exactly what continued to transpire 31 years later at the home of JPII.
After two weeks of traveling, returning home was bittersweet, and we wanted to go back and continue living in the spirit of WYD. However, the Feast of Transfiguration was a good reminder that Jesus’ call for us is to live out in the uncomfortable world with His people, not just inside the peacefulness of the church. By participating in WYD as pilgrim sheep, we can remember that scent to help us continue walking the saintly road to Christ no matter where we are today.
Conoon Kim is a web developer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a WYD pilgrim.