Cardinal Dolan sent this column from World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, where he was one of 13 U.S. bishops to serve as a catechist.
Two weeks ago I wrote from Kerala, India, where I went at the invitation of brother cardinals to visit extraordinarily vibrant Catholic communities.
And now my dateline is Krakow, Poland...here with over a million young pilgrims from all over the world for World Youth Day.
There’s a special attraction to this year’s mega-meeting, since Krakow is the city of the patron saint of World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II.
He started them in 1984, with a hunch that young people from all over the world were hungry, for the chance to come together, in the solidarity of faith, prayer, witness, and celebration. Some critics snickered at him, as the cynics asked why he hadn’t read the memos that young people had given up on religion.
But came they did...and World Youth Days have become a constant of Catholic life, with the children of the original participants now showing up.
It’s almost a weeklong festival. The “fireworks” don’t usually begin until later in the week, with the arrival of the Holy Father, but other events began last Tuesday.
I personally relish the catechesis on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. Each of us bishops is assigned a group of young people each morning, about three hundred in number, all in our own language. The event starts at about 9:30 a.m. with music and prayer. The bishop-catechist gives his teaching at about 10:15, followed by questions and conversation. Confessions are then available, as young people give “witness” from their own journeys of faith. Mass starts about 11:30, and all go on our way about 12:30. It’s enlightening...and fun!
I’ll meet with the hundreds of young people from the archdiocese, proud that they’re here from our parishes, with a big group put together by our own director of youth ministry, Ela Milewska. And there will even be a huge gathering of all the pilgrims from the United States.
Pope Francis will lead us in an outside “Way of the Cross” Friday evening; Saturday evening sees the mammoth “prayer vigil” of youth led by the Holy Father, and Sunday morning is the concluding Mass with Pope Francis with an anticipated congregation of two million.
What’s the appeal? For one, young people appreciate the solidarity. They observe that they often feel alone in the faith, wondering at times if anyone else really believes. As they look around at millions of other youth from all over the world, they are exhilarated by the reality that they belong to a family, the Church, and are not all by themselves.
Two, they report that they are energized. Pope St. John Paul II would not pander to the youth. On the contrary, he called them to greatness, to heroic virtue, to sanctity. As one participant witnessed at one of my catechetical sessions, “I don’t want to just ‘get by’ in my faith, coasting along in mediocrity. I want to ‘get going’ along the path of friendship with Jesus, in His Church.”
Three, the pilgrims are unfailingly moved by the universality of the Church. To meet, pray with, and listen to other youth from all over, every language, from countries where to practice the faith means to risk one’s life, is a real boost for all of us. Our own problems shrink when we hear others describe their challenges and crosses.
It becomes life-changing for many. For three decades, I’ve heard the stories of vocations discerned, hearts converted, decisions made, faith heroically embraced.
And here we are “at home,” in Krakow now, which has seen the worst of the last century—Nazism and Communism...and the best—Divine Mercy, St. John Paul II, a heroic Catholic people who reclaimed truth, faith, and freedom.
I’m glad I’m here...I even feel “young at heart.”