Its been 5 days since we set off from Manchester for World Youth Day celebrations in Poland. After a gruelling 15 hour wait for the ferry from Dover, we managed to get across Europe safely. We're now finally in Krakow after arriving last night.
Once we stepped off the ferry in Calais (already a detour from the original plan of Dunkirk), we thankfully had a fairly smooth journey. Our aim was to visit 7 Holy Doors on the way to Krakow, in what was being referred to as a 'Trail of Mercy'.
Due to the ferry setbacks, we sadly had to skip our visit to Antwerp and head straight for Cologne, where we had arranged accommodation with a parish. We descended on our hosts at Cologne cathedral just as they were holding a Nightfever event...something we're very familiar with as we host Nightfever at the Holy Name! Once I mentioned that to the priest organising it, we were asked to record a video message inviting the people of the world to take part in Nightfever in Krakow this Thursday! Delia recorded the message in Malay, Kika in Portuguese, Krystyna in Polish, and I did a piece in English.
The reception we received in Cologne was very warm. ..we were treated to a huge breakfast on the day of our departure and our hosts wanted to know all about us. Kika was very excited to learn that we just happened to be staying at a Schoenstatt house (she has a great devotion to Our Lady of Schoenstatt).
The warmth of the hosts has been a common trend during our pilgrimage. Aside from Cologne, we have also stayed overnight in a church hall in Dresden, made a pit stop in Erfurt and visited the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa - in all of these places the people have been genuinely interested in us and have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome.
Once we got to Krakow- the Promised Land after what felt like 40 years in the desert! - we were assigned to host families. We were split into groups of twos and threes (there are 12 of us at the moment, with more to join). At first, the prospect of staying with total strangers in a small village half an hour outside of the centre of Krakow was a little daunting. It seemed especially unappealing after 4 days of driving and feeling unwashed and grumpy. I thought perhaps it would be hard work to be 'on' for even longer, particularly with the language barrier.
I could not have been more wrong. The host family that Ola and I are staying with are some of the kindest and most open people I have ever met. They don't speak any English (although their 9 year old daughter speaks a little; I've been helping her with her homework!) Despite the language block, this family and all of our host families are genuinely excited to see us. Even though I can't have a fluent conversation, which can be a little frustrating, we communicate mostly in a combination of sign language and laughter. It's the things that we share in common, especially our faith, that overcome the language barrier.
It's clear to see that their faith means a lot to them. The Divine Mercy image and pictures of John Paul II are everywhere, and faith is taken as a matter of fact; a part of everyday life in all simplicity.
It seems to me that the great hospitality that these people are showing to us stems from a great love for the Gospel and a belief in welcoming the stranger as though he were Christ Himself. I have never been made to feel so important for doing so little! It's actually very humbling, and constantly reminds me of the scripture piece that says 'always show hospitality to the stranger, for you may be enterraining angels without realising it'. (Hebrews 13:2)
It occurred to me that these people are very trusting. The family I'm staying with has 2 young children, yet they have opened their doors to two total strangers for a week. I think we in Britain could learn a thing or two about hospitality from the Poles!
World Youth Day has now officially begun- we've just had the opening Mass of St John Paul II, celebrated by Cardinal Dsiwisz. The atmosphere here is electric. Young people from all nations are partying in the streets, smiling and open to meeting new people. That warmth and excitement is picking up pace as anticipation builds for the arrival of Pope Francis tomorrow. Today our group visited Krakow Cathedral and spent an hour queueing, but this time the queue felt like a moment because we spent the time singing with groups we'd just met from Australia and the USA. Kika is in her element, playing her guitar and leading songs. I taught our group some chants today and we treated the people on our tram to a few songs...they seemed to enjoy it! Everywhere we go the locals smile and wave enthusiastically at us. ..They seem happy to see the young Church alive and well. It truly is a powerful witness for both pilgrims and locals.
I have just wrapped up the evening with my host family by drinking a beer with them and singing 'Barka', the most famous Polish hymn (JP2'S favourite). I have had the most wonderful first day of WYD- looking forward to the rest!