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Krakow in the Capital: World Youth Day Comes to Washington, DC

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In the past week, two million pilgrims from all over the world traveled to Krakow, Poland to celebrate World Youth Day and to remember its founder, Pope Saint John Paul II, in his homeland.

A little closer to home, thousands of young adults from across the US journeyed to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC to celebrate their very own World Youth Day, aptly titled “Krakow in the Capitol.” The event, held on July 30 and sponsored by organizations including the Archdiocese of Washington, the Knights of Columbus, and the Embassy of Poland (see all the great sponsors here), sought to bring together young adults for a day of spiritual formation and renewal. As a participant, I got to witness firsthand the joy and love such an event brings to its attendees, and while the entire day was beautiful, there are several moments that were particularly special in my own personal pilgrimage.

Evangelizing for Mary

I spent the first half of the day speaking about the Legion of Mary at our exhibit table, which gave me the opportunity to meet Catholics of all ages looking to deepen their relationship with the Blessed Mother. I love any opportunity to share with others how being a part of the Legion of Mary has transformed my life, from the work in prison ministry, to learning more about the faith, to finding a new family in my fellow Legionaries. More importantly, as I spoke with each person who came to our table, I began to get a sense of how united we all were by our being there together, seeking Truth and forming new friendships – just as John Paul II would have wanted.

Meeting Fr. James

Earlier in the day during the opening prayer, my new friends and I spotted Fr. James Martin, SJ, the noted Jesuit priest, author and editor of America Magazine (and also known as the official chaplain of TV’s The Colbert Report). We approached him for a picture and were touched when he wanted a picture of us, too – which he then shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, along with those of the other young pilgrims he met. I found this unsurprising; a reflection of his genuine love, humility, and the deep connection he has with all people, especially the young. I was excited to hear his talk later in the day, entitled “Jesus: Face of the Father’s Mercy,” a hilarious and moving study of Jesus’ simultaneously divine and human nature. Fr. James explained how both the divine and human aspects of His life are equally important, and we cannot pick and choose the aspect of His identity with which we are most comfortable. “Think of it this way,” he said. “When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He was fully human. And when he was a carpenter, He was fully divine.”

Fr. James ended his talk by asking us to believe that, no matter where we are, God has placed us there for a reason, particularly when it comes to sharing the faith. It does not matter that we are not Pope Francis because God does not expect us to speak and evangelize in exactly the same way as the Pope. Instead, we must simply meet others where they are and offer our personal experience as witness, understanding that there are reasons for every encounter God gives us.

Joyfully Catholic

The day continued with colorful Polish folk dancing, a delicious, authentic Polish dinner of pierogies, kielbasa and donuts, then a quick tour of the Dominican House of Studies, led by the Prior, Fr. Luke Clark. We had just enough time before Stations of the Cross and Mass with Cardinal Wuerl to tour the crypt in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This is my favorite part of the Basilica, particularly for all the different representations of Our Lady. From Lourdes to Vietnam to Sri Lanka, she is represented with love and reverence in glittering mosaics and paintings in the style of various countries. Everything is peaceful, still, and holy and I thought for the millionth time how fortunate I am to live close enough to visit, any time I want. Visiting Our Lady there is such a blessing, because the grace is truly tangible.

The day closed with the Stations of the Cross and Mass with Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The energy in the Basilica had changed from the morning’s benediction, when the day was fresh with excitement. Now, things were calmer and warmer. There was something like a feeling of being home. The thousand-plus young pilgrims settled into seats, holding candles and passing the flame from one to another as the Cross made its procession.

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl remembered World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. He recalled one particular moment when Pope Saint John Paul II spoke to the crowds from his text and asked the youth to never be ashamed of their faith. Pausing and moving the text aside, he looked up at the crowd and said, “What I mean to say is, be proud of your faith. Be proud that God has given you the grace to have faith.”

As the Mass ended and people began to leave, a singer in the choir burst into one last, spontaneous song, singing, “Amen, amen! Alleluia, alleluia!” Soon the entire Basilica was filled with clapping and singing, ringing out with the joy of the young pilgrims. It was a powerful image: the Mass over, the Cardinal and concelebrating priests gone, and yet the young people still there, singing and praising together on our own. This has been and always will be the spirit of every World Youth Day, since the very first 30 years ago.

Finding the Universal Church

Something that I felt for myself and heard from others is that experiencing World Youth Day proves the true universality of the Church. I met people from not only the US, but all over the world, who share the same love for the faith and desire for closeness with Jesus. It is this universality that is a hallmark of the Church, and to see it in action is remarkable. It is a reminder of why we must keep the love of God alive and strive to bring Him to those we meet.

I write this the day after, as I watch social media for pictures and videos celebrating the event. It helps me hold on to the experience just a little longer and continue to feel that solidarity that all the pilgrims will feel, always, when they think about this day spent together. One of the beautiful things about pilgrimage, I learned, is that those who are there, celebrating with you – even those you did not meet or speak with directly – are bound by the experience. As Cardinal Wuerl told us, “You will remember this always.”