Pilgrims unite as Catholics for WYD opening Mass

This story appears in the World Youth Day 2016 feature series. View the full series.
Pilgrims attend the opening Mass for World Youth Day July 26 at Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland. (CNS/Bob Roller)
Pilgrims attend the opening Mass for World Youth Day July 26 at Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland. (CNS/Bob Roller)

by Kristen Whitney Daniels

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Editor's note: Kristen Whitney Daniels, NCR's newest Bertelsen intern, is in Warsaw, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016; she will be blogging about her experience on NCRonline.org. Look for Kristen's posts at feature series page World Youth Day 2016.

If it had been any other time, seeing youth of all ages piled on top of the Adam Mickiewicz Monument in the Main Square in Krakow would be alarming.

Thankfully it was just the eve of World Youth Day's official opening.

Youth from around the world flooded the square the night before the official opening Mass to celebrate and join with others in Krakow's main hub. The Adam Mickiewicz Monument, framed by the imposing St. Mary's Basilica behind it, became the de facto spot for pilgrims to show off their countries' colors and best chants.

At one point, a group of priests came out with guitars onto the monument and serenaded the crowd to promote vocations. The city was alive and rich with the spirit of camaraderie and joy, with impromptu conversations with pilgrims from near and far. It was a beautiful sight of unity, with the gorgeous background of ornate Polish history.

The featured event for the next day was the World Youth Day opening Mass in Błonia Park. The first officially sponsored event for pilgrims, I was finally able to see for myself the massive amount of people that were in attendance. The event itself was like nothing else I have ever witnessed. The best way to describe it would be a strange mix between the World Cup, Olympics and Coachella. Then add a Catholic flavor to make it one uniquely blended event.

Related: At WYD opening, Krakow cardinal asks pilgrims to spread message of divine mercy (July 27, 2016)

However what made it truly different, what separated it from all those other aforementioned events, was the desire to be united within the Catholic community in these moments. As young adults, it was comforting knowing that our identity in Jesus Christ surpassed all the language barriers we faced.

Right before we were to depart for Błonia Park where the opening Mass would be taking place, the skies opened up. Conditions quickly became less than ideal. I can say that at this point, it finally felt like a pilgrimage. Since the beginning of our formation for the trip, we were reminded that we are pilgrims, not tourists. Tromping through mud, puddles and grass to get to our spot in an enormous open field, this felt like the perfect reminder.

We sat collectively, and not just as a diocese, but as Catholics, among the weeds and the bugs, who seemed immune to the bug spray we all preemptively doused ourselves with. Sitting on the bottom of a hill, only having our fellow pilgrims backs to look at and the voice of a very foreign language, the Mass could have easily become frustrating. Yet we all sat there in solidarity. Laughing about our improper translations of the parts of Mass. Assisting each other before we fell into the mud. Soaking in the absurdity that gathered in one space, we represented over 180 different countries.

All the weather conditions aside, it was a moving experience. Pilgrims proudly held their flags above the crowds. These flags included countries being represented for the first time in World Youth Day history, like South Sudan. Flags from Iraq and Syria floated in the distance as well, reminding me that for some there is so much more than the monetary cost it took to get here.

Thankfully, sections of the field were not separated by language, and I had the privilege of sitting next to Polish pilgrims who proudly sang Mass songs in their native language. The dynamic choir and orchestra led us in universal song, as pilgrims sang out on the 100-plus acres of land in the heart of Krakow. Each country added their own flair to the Mass, highlighting the beauty in our differences.

The spirit of the Mass seemed to carry with us as we made the trek from the field to the hostel. Despite the absurdly slow pace, music blared from the orchestra and choir. Countries continued their chanting and taught others their traditional dances. We all clapped along to the tambourines and drums that resounded with people's native tunes. As we shuffled down the road to the exit, the residences that lined the streets greeted us with flags, cheers and waves. Clearly the enthusiasm was catching on.

The spirits of Krakow's residents and the pilgrims alike are awake and fired up. Now we're just waiting on you Pope Francis.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is kdaniels@ncronline.org.]

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