MASS WITH POPE FRANCIS ON THE FEAST OF ST IGNATIUS
Today we are about to head home after a wonderful pilgrimage. We will be travelling for four days by car before we reach England.
What can I say about the last week of my life?
Aside from my return to God after the death of John Paul II, this has been the most powerful experience of my life.
It has by no means been an easy pilgrimage though. In the last 48 hours, our group joined 3 million young people in walking 50km to Campus Misericordiae to camp out in an overnight vigil. There we gathered to listen to the teachings of our Holy Father, Pope Francis and to be spiritually fed for the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
The walk itself was a little tiring. Some in our group began to feel physical pain on the journey, while others felt the burden of the heat (scorching hot weather) and tiredness setting in. We were blessed, however, to be at the roadside as Pope Francis unexpectedly passed by in his little car.
Well, most of our group saw him! I only managed to see his arm, as I had been looking to the back of the convoy to see him in a big popemobile. I didn't expect him to cruise by in such a small, ordinary looking car. This pope is truly undoing all of our expectations, and challenging us by doing so.
At the campus, the Pope had invited laypeople to get up and give testimonies. I was pleased to see that he'd allowed a Syrian woman to speak about the persecution and horrors her "beautiful country" had faced. Pope Francis went on to speak about the refugee crisis, and our duty to help immigrants in the name of mercy.
It has been refreshing to hear a leader speak so fearlessly, so truthfully and so humanely about the plight of refugees.
Even the less religious in the group could not fail to be impressed and inspired by the Pope's integrity and compassion.
The overnight vigil was an amazing experience. The Pope led us in a sung Divine Mercy chaplet, and in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We joined him in veneration of an image of Our Lady which JP2 had had a devotion to.
Once the Pope bid us goodnight, we commenced with a huge party! 3 million young people gathered together in one place- it was always going to be exuberant! Some of our group went for a walk around the entire campus (it took us over an hour to get around). We joined in with groups from all over the world in dancing, singing, praying. The sights and sounds were indescribable. The joy we saw was immense- it was as though we all supported one football team and we had just won the World Cup. I guess in a spiritual sense that's exactly what has happened.
How blessed we are to be granted the gift of faith. None of us has earned this gift - it had been freely given. All we have done is said yes to it. I have felt so much gratitude over the last few months for this gift, and even more so this week.
Before going to sleep under the stars, we lit Chinese paper lanterns and prayed together.
Sunday was World Youth Day itself- and also the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. I don't think it's by accident that Pope Francis (himself a Jesuit) chose this day to be World Youth Day!
We celebrated Sunday Mass with the Pope. At first I was tired and groggy during the Mass (sleep doesn't come easy in a field!) The Pope spoke powerfully about mission and the joy that JP2 feels at seeing us gathered here. Once the Eucharistic Prayer began, I was moved very much. What a privelige to be present with our shepherd and to break bread together as a universal Church.
It was an emotional experience for me, as I really felt that I was part of the Body of Christ during that Mass. There we were, all gathered together. Such a beautiful Church. It also hit me that something -someone- greater than even the Pope was with us during the consecration. Christ Himself. I was filled with awe at being called to be part of such a beautiful Church, and wished that the whole world could know this joy! What a treasure it is to know Christ.
The Pope commissioned us to go out and be Missionaries of Mercy and gave us his blessing.
Utterly scorched by the sun, we began the trek back to Krakow. What should have been a three hour journey turned into an eight hour slog. As 3 million people all scrambled to leave the campus at once, we were going at a snail's pace.
We rested along the way to see if the crowd would peter out...it never did!
We were caught up in the most incredibly dramatic thunderstorm...we loved it! It seems that the weather itself was mourning the departure of the Pope from Krakow!
The adventures were not over! As we sought shelter from the torrents, a Polish/Brazilian couple named Giu and Magda took us into their flat for a cup of tea and a dry off. Yet another amazing example of Polish warmth and hospitality!
With them we discussed all of the things we had seen on the way. Magda spoke about how she had initially been anxious about the influx of pilgrims and how it would affect her commute to work (she's a lawyer), but how she had been moved by the joy of the pilgrims. She was now sad to see us all leave!
After the warm reception from this couple, our group faced a very long walk in the rain. We faced dead ends with public transport, and it was a real challenge to keep spirits up as we were all cold, tired, wet and hungry. We had already said goodbye to some of our group. Lucas, one of the leaders, left to go home to Brazil forever. (We were all in bits saying goodbye- this experience has been one of bonding.) Without Lucas leading the way, we really felt a difference...it just goes to show that one person changes everything! Some parts of the journey were a little disorienting, and patience was wearing thin after the first four hours. A couple of us said a thanksgiving rosary- it was important in the moments of trial to recall all of the many many blessings we had received this day, this week.
We also had to band together and really support one another. I was touched by the care which Jess showed to me. She had been very upset and feeling unwell for hours, but at the first sign of me shaking she forgot herself and worked to warm me up. The struggles actually brought us all closer together, even though there were temptations to argue. We realised that we had all struggled together and that we needed each other to survive: a picture of humanity, a picture of the Church. We could have gone it alone and split up, but we were stronger together. Without one another our reserves of strength would have depleted and we would have felt the burden so much more.
I guess that's what World Youth Day is about. Bringing us all together to realise that we are not alone. We may face struggles and temptations in life, in our secular world. We may want to throw in the towel of faith sometimes, we may want to break away from the Church that irritates or seemingly holds us back. We may sometimes feel it's better to go our own way, but these World Youth Days of solidarity and witness are there to strengthen and encourage us. They give us sustenance for the journey; they push us onwards in our pilgrimage to our eternal destination. They give us the will to keep walking the true way, with the family that is the Church.
Our host families have begun to say their goodbyes to us. I was touched that Andrzej, my host, said that he was sad see me go and that they had liked my warmth. I said it was the other way around!! We have now been invited back to come and visit, we now have family in Poland.
I will definitely take them up on that offer - being here has been an unforgettable gift from God. The Church is alive here, and in the young people of the world!
Now what? We go, we take the joy of these days in our hearts and we share it with those who have not felt it yet.
Peter said: "Lord, you know everything; You know that I love You." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." (John 21: 17)