|St. Cecilia Academy seniors Brianne Kendall, left, and Cosette Bolt join their religion teacher, Sister Amelia, O.P., singing the World Youth Day theme song at the Welcome Ceremony for Pope Francis in Krakow, Poland. Nineteen students from St. Cecilia and 30 other young people and chaperones from the Diocese of Nashville attended the 2016 World Youth Day last month.
Walking through Krakow, Poland, going from one World Youth Day event to the next, St. Cecilia Academy junior Corinne Baroni was constantly struck by the tremendous number of young Catholics from every corner of the world who had gathered to celebrate their faith.
“Every single day I just said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many people in my life,” Baroni said. “Just knowing they were all like me even though we spoke different languages and are involved in different things, just knowing we all had that same Catholic faith that united us, it was indescribable.”
Baroni was part of a group of St. Cecilia Academy students, teachers and chaperones who traveled to Poland in July to participate in 2016 World Youth Day. They were one of several groups from the Diocese of Nashville who attended the huge Catholic festival of catechesis, evangelization and worship.
This year, World Youth Day came to the home country of St. John Paul II who started World Youth Day. Pope Francis celebrated the closing Mass for millions of pilgrims and encouraged young people to bring their faith to the world.
“There were so many people,” said St. Cecilia Academy junior Eile McGinn. “I couldn’t get over the fact so many people were there to celebrate the Catholic faith.”
|St. Cecilia Academy students hike in the mountains near Zakopane, Poland where St. John Paul II used to take his philosophy students as a young priest.
“The more astounding thing was for a mission diocese to take (30) people and plop them in the middle of ... millions and say this is a global church,” said Bill Staley, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Nashville, who led a group of 30 World Youth Day pilgrims from throughout the diocese. “It was very moving.”
St. Anne Catherine, O.P., principal of St. Cecilia Academy, led a group of 19 of her students. It was her fourth World Youth Day, having previously attended the event in Denver, Toronto and Madrid.
“They’re all so different. That’s the beauty of it,” she said. “The events are the same, the energy is the same, but all in a different cultural context.”
In Poland, the legacies of St. John Paul II and St. Faustina, the Polish nun who started the Divine Mercy devotion, were visible everywhere, Sister Anne Catherine said. “For this generation of high school kids, they didn’t really know Pope John Paul like the way you and I do. He is all over Poland.”
During their trip, the St. Cecilia group visited several sites associated with St. John Paul II in Krakow, the city where he served as archbishop before his election as pope, and other locations in Poland, including: hiking the mountains near Zakopane where St. John Paul II would lead groups of young people when he was a young priest; St. Stanislaus Kotska Church where the saint would attend Mass as a young man in the early 1940s as he was discerning his own vocation; and Wadowice, St. John Paul II’s hometown.
For this year’s World Youth Day, the main attraction was Pope Francis. The pilgrims from the Nashville Diocese were able to hear Pope Francis speak at the opening ceremonies, at a prayer vigil the night before the closing Mass, and at the closing Mass. And some had a brush with the pope as he drove by in his popemobile.
|In addition to official World Youth Day events, pilgrims from the Diocese of Nashville had a chance to explore the surrounding Polish area, walking the footsteps of St. John Paul and others. The World Youth Day pilgrims from the Diocese of Nashville, above, tour the Royal Way in Krakow, Poland, which connects the Wawel Castle and Cathedral to the town square. The buildings in the background were the residence of St. John Paul II from 1951 to 1967 while he was a priest and Archbishop of Krakow.
The St. Cecilia group was on its way to the Field of Mercy, the site of the closing Mass, when they approached a crowd along a street that had been blocked off, Sister Anne Catherine explained. When they asked what was going on, they were told the pope was about to drive by.
As the pope rode past the group, “he faced our side of the road,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “He’s waving, he’s smiling. The girls got that one opportunity to see him up close. They just went wild.”
“All these police cars and sirens and ambulances started coming by,” recalled St. Cecilia senior Katie Alexander. “Then the pope drove by. … That was a really fun moment. I know our group was going crazy.”
“From that point, everything he said seemed so personal,” Baroni said. “I felt like I knew him, even though I had just seen him for a second.”
In his homilies and addresses to the crowds, the pope was able to relate to the young people, talking about technology and texting and urging them not to bury themselves in their cell phones, Staley said. “He was totally relating to them.”
“The fact that he was so happy there were so many young people there to express their faith really hit home,” Samuel Adkins said of the pope’s words. Adkins was part of a group of 10 young people from St. Catherine Church in Columbia and their pastor Father Davis Chackaleckel, M.S.F.S., who traveled to World Youth Day with Staley.
“You could tell he cared about everybody there even though there were so many of us,” Baroni added. “He said a lot of things that have to do with mercy. He really emphasized starting local and starting with your own family and your friends.”
Another of the pope’s messages was “we really need people who are not going to be stuck on the couch. … That really stuck out to me,” Baroni said.
“He’s such a great speaker,” Alexander said. “He really connects well with young people. He talked a lot about the Year of Mercy … and how we need to wake up in our spiritual life.”
|A group of World Youth Day pilgrims from the Diocese of Nashville stroll through the centuries old “barbican” gates into the oldest part of Krakow. Throughout the week, young people from around the world filled the streets of the city carrying their national flags and chanting in their native languages.
The pope also encouraged the pilgrims to share their faith with others and to be merciful toward others, Alexander said. “Our school is a faith driven school, but sometimes we lose sight of things,” she said. When that happens, “we need to bring up faith again. … I don’t think I would have thought about that if I hadn’t gone on this trip.”
“I really liked the way he spoke to the young people,” Sister Anne Catherine said of Pope Francis. “He is direct and simple. It really was a call to action.” The pope, she said, told the young people “You need to leave your mark on the world. God needs your heart and hands and feet to bring the love of Christ to the world. Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history.
“The girls picked up on that, don’t vegetate,” she said.
The World Youth Day pilgrims also heard other speakers, including bishops and cardinals from around the world who led daily catechesis sessions.
At one of the catechesis sessions, the St. Cecilia group was with Catholics from South Africa, and it provided an opportunity to get a glimpse of another culture. “It was interesting to see how they experience Mass,” McGinn said. “That’s something you wouldn’t see anywhere but World Youth Day.”
Throughout the week, the pilgrims encountered fellow young Catholics from around the world. “It really opened my eyes to the amount of Catholics that are our age,” Adkins said.
“It was a good reminder of how the Church is still young,” McGinn said. “You see so many people who are teenagers, they don’t understand religion,” she said. But at World Youth Day, “people who traveled from Australia were there. You don’t travel halfway around the world for nothing.”
Before he left for Poland, Adkins said, “Spiritually, I was expecting to be changed, and I could say I was, but it was in a different way. It was more in the atmosphere and the sheer number of people there worshipping Christ. It really set in your mind the purpose we were there.”
Alexander was surprised by the size of the crowds. “It surprised me. Our group talked about that a lot, about how many people were there. … That many people was shocking,” Alexander said. “It was great to think all the people were Catholic and there for the pope. It was really great.”
The trip had an impact on the pilgrims. “It was my first World Youth Day but hopefully not my last,” said McGinn.
“We saw a mass planting of seeds in the hearts of these young people,” Staley said. “We’ll see what fruits will come to bear.”