As World Youth Day ends, the true pilgrimage begins

This story appears in the World Youth Day 2016 feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis waves after inviting World Youth Day pilgrims to sit in front of his chair during the July 30 prayer vigil at the Field of Mercy in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis waves after inviting World Youth Day pilgrims to sit in front of his chair during the July 30 prayer vigil at the Field of Mercy in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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 Look for Kristen's posts at feature series page World Youth Day 2016.

KRAKOW, POLAND --- Besides the occasional siren, a stillness settled here beginning on Saturday afternoon, creating a brief reprieve from the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that have called Krakow home this past week. In a city with hour-plus wait times for food, queues just to enter the town square, and bathrooms frequently lacking toilet paper, the almost sudden quietness seemed unsettling. Peaceful, but lacking the excitement that pilgrims seem to bring with them wherever they go.

The mass exodus began early Saturday morning with pilgrims eager to secure a spot close to Pope Francis at the outdoor venue southeast of Krakow, called “Campus Misercordiae,” for the evening vigil and Mass. To get there, they walked many miles (my own Bridgeport, Conn., diocese walking 10) in 80 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and pedestrian congestion that added hours to the already long trek. Most carried heavy backpacks with everything they would need for two days of arduous travel and a night in an open field. They picked up box lunches at makeshift stations, if there were any left. All of this to keep vigil underneath the stars with millions of others and ultimately to catch a glimpse of the pope.  

A pilgrimage indeed.

Then there were those of us who kept our own vigil. Almost 200 of us crammed into a hot, stuffy room on the fourth floor of our hostel in Krakow to participate in the events the best we could. We surrounded a single television transmitting exclusively in Polish to watch the vigil and Mass. While not physically present with those who flocked to the field, it was impossible not to feel the passion with which Francis spoke as he addressed the youth of World Youth Day and of the world.

Our group sat in awe watching Francis speak to the gathered pilgrims while we simultaneously listened to the English translation of his speech from an iPhone. The pope struck a deep chord in my heart when he said this: “Dear young people, we didn’t come into this work to “vegetate,” to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark.”

His genuine concern about the direction of our lives was clear. The pope seemed to speak to the depths of my heart. At the core of this statement is the very real fear that our lives will be unremarkable, unexciting and unimportant. The fear that our lives will leave no indelible mark in the world. What person doesn’t have that thought cross their mind?

During a private moment, a priest asked me a serious question: Why am I here? Why am I halfway across the world in Poland, learning about God’s love on this mentally and physically taxing pilgrimage?

I could easily be listening to talks and praying on a retreat in the States, in my own diocese. The priest further explained that the answer to this question could take days, months or even years to manifest, but the important part is that you ask yourself this question no matter where you’re at.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been stumped by this question. It would be easy to answer that I wanted to be with my friends, witness the country of my ancestors or just curiosity at what exactly it’s like to share communion with a million other youth.

But I believe the answer is much deeper. I’ve bore witness to the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkneau, the joy of St. Faustina’s trust and the deep flowing mercy that St. John Paul II practiced. I’ve seen the Church at its best -- a place where unity, love and acceptance is abundant and free-flowing. Every event during this pilgrimage has left a mark on me. Now how do I use that as a vehicle to make a mark on the world?

As I get ready to depart this beautiful city, I know the work of World Youth Day is not yet done. If this is a true pilgrimage, the witness to this event is just the beginning. Now it is our turn to answer the question of why we are here and to live that answer. It is our responsibility as pilgrims to carry these witnesses of terror, joy, love, community and mercy back to our homes, families and friends.

To show the world that our generation is not full of couch potatoes but ready with their “boots laced,” as Pope Francis called us to be.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

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