We must take World Youth Day's love, mercy back home

This story appears in the World Youth Day 2016 feature series. View the full series.

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.

Prior to my departure from the States, I vowed to immerse myself as fully as possible into the World Youth Day experience. In life, I often find myself straddling the line between participant and viewer; trying to collect as many dynamic experiences in this life while simultaneously writing my next Snapchat caption for such moments. Disengaging from my social media feeds fraught with politics and letting my emails pile up has been the key to truly enjoying this pilgrimage. It's what has allowed me to immerse myself in my writing and my periodic social media updates.

So when speakers from the World Youth Day events on Wednesday, July 27, spoke about the shooting that took place in Munich and the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Hamel, I was shocked to hear about such horrific events. It was incredibly difficult to comprehend that hundreds of thousands of Catholics were here in Krakow flamboyantly expressing their faith, yet somewhere else, someone was being murdered for simply practicing it.

Throughout the day, speakers referenced these violent acts. At the World Youth Day USA event, a group of almost 20 pilgrims from the San Diego diocese took the stage. In front of almost 20,000 pilgrims, one of the leaders took the microphone and spoke about the group's experience of getting to WYD. Recounting their story, he spoke of eating at a restaurant in Munich when shots rang through the streets and the group was forced to witness the bloody aftermath of the shooting. Emotionally scarred and wondering whether the group should continue their journey to Poland, the group leader thought of St. John Paul II and his first speech as pope, begging the world to "be not afraid." Answering this question, he said, "Should we continue on? We must."

Later that evening during a praise and worship event, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron from the Los Angeles archdiocese tossed out his original talk, instead speaking about the current "age of martyrs" we are experiencing, inspired by the death and martyrdom of Fr. Hamel. Bishop Barron wove the stories of Fr. Hamel, St. Maximilian Kolbe and other martyrs together to remind the pilgrims that our Christian faith can not be lived out by hiding it from the world. Bishop Barron said, "our Christianity is not for our private consumption."

At times it can be hard to conceptualize issues such as martyrdom and violence when one hasn't personally experienced it. During his homily, Cardinal Sean O'Malley discussed issues that many pilgrims could relate to: the refugee crisis, homelessness, addiction and environmental issues. "We need to find a new route to take us where we need to go," urged Cardinal O'Malley. Cardinal O'Malley added, "As people who are forgiven, we must learn how to forgive and be people of mercy."

Related: Embrace mercy every day, Boston cardinal tells WYD audience (July 27, 2016)

All of this was a stark reminder that despite turning off the TV and shutting out social media, the world continues to turn. Tragic events have and will continue to happen. This "bubble" of worship and camaraderie felt during World Youth Day will soon end as each pilgrim returns to their home country.

So how do we overcome that? How do we continue to let the light of God shine in us without letting the world extinguish that flame? Joel Stepanek, from Lifeteen Ministries and the last speaker before Eucharistic adoration, told the pilgrims that mercy is key. Regarding mercy, Stepanek said, "healing in the world is possible but has to start with us."

Mercy is not an easy choice. It requires forgiveness and compassion, both simple enough words that are incredibly difficult to live out. But if each pilgrim could remember and carry with them to their country just an ounce of the love and compassion that is so evident here in Krakow, I believe the world can be a different place. That is the light I continue to hold onto, even in the darkest hours.

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

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