These past three weeks was a time that changed me and millions of others in unforgettable and massively significant ways.
My brother and I spent time in four different countries on a pilgrimage for our faith. That is the simplest way to sum it up. We traveled from Chicago to Austria to the Czech Republic and finally to Poland with over 80 other university Students. Each day walking miles to visit Holy Shrines, all the while bearing our hearts to each other and the world.
WYD lasted from July 26th through August 1st, but my pilgrimage started about a week and a half earlier. Evan and I met with our fellow FOCUS pilgrims in Chicago on July 17th and from there we flew to Berlin to catch our connecting flight to Vienna, Austria. Outside the Vienna Airport (which might be the nicest airport I’ve ever seen, I highly recommend international travel just to hangout in its many food courts) our group of over eighty collided with the CCO (Catholic Christian Outreach, a Canadian organization similar to FOCUS.) Then all 150 of us hopped on a bus to travel to our first pilgrimage sight—the Melk Monastery. This was my first glimpse of Europe. The monastery sat upon a large hill over looking a very very European town. The castle-like monastery, with its expansive library, high walled courtyards, and grand gardens, was everything I ever hoped Europe would be. The first Mass we attended was at this monastery, in a beautiful church with walls and ceilings covered in gold and frescos.
The week following this first day was spent in Gaming, Austria at the Franciscan University Austrian campus. During these days we lived snuggled in a valley at the base of the Alps, surrounded on all sides by hills that made Mount Bonnell look like a lump of dry Texas dirt. We attended daily Mass, spent at least an hour every day in prayer, and attended talks by FOCUS and CCO representatives. This was a time of peaceful reflection and spiritual growth. We were able to form friendships with our fellow pilgrims that would be tested and strengthened repetitively for the next twelve days.
The next leg of our journey was to Zory, Poland for the Youth Arise Festival. We made several stops at gas stations in the Czech Republic (Waco friends, let me tell you this was a very different kind of Czech stop than what you are thinking), one of which included a comical misunderstanding with a Czech woman that resulted in Monique and I using the men’s restroom. With short notice we were informed of our unexpected accommodations for the weekend—we would all be staying with host families. Everyone was spread throughout Zory. Our families welcomed us with, very literally, with open arms and tables full of food. Most of the families, including mine, were elderly couples who did not speak a word of English. We conversed using a rebellious Google Translate app that often resulted in of lots of pointing and miscommunication. Despite the language barrier, the generosity and kind spirits of my Polish host parents—Edmund and Stefania—will stay with me forever and will always have a very special place in my heart. It is truly beautiful to see the Holy Spirit shine through a stranger who gives everything out of the goodness of their hearts.
After Zory, we came to Krakow, Poland. The five days we spent there stretched and suffocated me. Upon our arrival, it seemed a peaceful town, but as the day went on it, became quite clear that the whole world had shown up. World Youth Day is an international gathering of Catholics meant to glorify and honor our one true king, Jesus Christ. What it looked like was two million young people, soaked in rain and mud, crammed into a tram car. Two million young people hiking 16 miles to sleep in a spider-filled field. Two million young people giving everything they have to our God.
Krakow is the home of some of our greatest saints—including Pope Saint John Paul II and Saint Faustina—because of them Pope Francis invited the youth of the Catholic world to this city. Every street, every shop, and even every puddle seemed to reverberate Catholicism. The streets were packed with people from six continents and 187 countries. Every flag imaginable was waved, every national anthem sung. In one city I experienced the whole world.
It was during these days that I learned many new things about the Catholic faith. I learned that everyone suffers, whether it be from heartbreak, devastating loss, or physical weakness, but the absolute joy that comes from living the Catholic faith makes it all worth it.
Better is one day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere. (Ps 84:10)
“Be demanding of the world around you; be demanding first of all with yourselves. Be children of God; take pride in it!” – JPII Czestochowa, Poland, 1991
Erin is a sophomore, English major from Austin, TX.