In 1984, Pope John Paul II called more than 300,000 young people to St. Peter's Square for an international jubilee of youth. There he entrusted to all youth the care of the World Youth Day cross. This cross has traveled the globe, serving as a centerpiece for World Youth Day celebrations in Denver, Manila, Paris, Toronto, Cologne, Madrid, Sydney, Rio, and soon Krakow. The Diocese of Buffalo has mirrored that tradition with its own WYD cross, that is now traveling from parish to parish in preparation for next year's Poland pilgrimage.
The Buffalo cross came to be in a funny way. During WYD 2002 in Toronto, pilgrims from the Diocese of Buffalo held a prayer service in a hotel in nearby Oakville, Ontario. They decided to pray the Stations of the Cross, but lacked one key element.
"Myself, a couple teenagers, my youth minister at the time from St. Gabriel's said, 'We should at least have a cross,'" recalled Father Peter Karalus, now pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Lake View. "We had all our World Youth Day paraphernalia on. Our hotel was right across the street from a Home Depot. So we walk into Home Depot and we're kind of wandering around and someone asks, 'Can I help you?' We said, 'Can we have this piece of wood cut?' They looked at us and said sure. They cut the wood. 'We're trying to build a cross. We're from World Youth Day.' We told them the whole story and asked, 'Is there some way we can nail it together?' He took us down the aisle, took a hammer off the shelf, opened a box of nails, nailed it with a couple of hammers and said, 'There you go.' I said, 'When we get up to the register, how are we going to pay for this? You really don't sell crosses.'"
They paid for the wood, labor was free, and they brought the cross back to the hotel, where 300 young pilgrims signed it.
The cross rested in a room at St. Gabriel Parish in Elma for the past 13 years. Due to online registration, the diocese has not organized a diocesan-wide pilgrimage until now.
Father Karalus, who is on the steering committee for WYD 2016, built a slightly larger cross and attached it to the 2002 cross. The 2016 pilgrims have signed the new outer cross, which has been traveling from parish to parish for about a year.
"We are inviting parishes to host the cross for a month at a time and to use it in their prayer celebrations and liturgies, to pray with it, to use it in a way that the international World Youth Day cross is used, the cross that was a gift from John Paul II to the youth of the world," said Kathryn Goller, director of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
Parishes might put it on display or take it to a local public place that would allow a religious display or incorporate it into their own liturgies. St. John the Baptist in Alden used it in a Polka Mass.
The Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministry brought it to the Youth Convention last February where Bishop Richard J. Malone added his signature. In May, parishioners from St. Brendan on the Lake in Newfane carried it on a 15-mile pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston.
"The cross is, I think, a wonderful symbol of the Diocese of Buffalo's participation in World Youth Days," Goller said. "It certainly doesn't encompass every World Youth Day that Buffalo folks have been to, but it definitely connects Toronto, which was our last very large experience of World Youth Day, which was 2002, with this pilgrimage to Krakow in 2016."
The cross comes with a history for parishioners to read and an explanation of what World Youth Day is about.
Once a parish hosts the cross, how should they use it?
"Ideally, they are placing it somewhere in their church somewhere where it is visible, with the bulletin articles and the presence of their teens that might be going to World Youth Day," said Father Karalus. "First and foremost, just letting the wider community see the cross and know that their parish has a group going to World Youth Day."
People can also seek out participants from 2002 and see how the experience has affected them 13 years on.
"World Youth Day is a spiritual experience," Father Karalus said. "It's a prayerful experience. It's not just a travel experience. It raises the awareness of what the group from that parish is really going to experience when they go."
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Orchard Park hosted the cross in May to make the parishioners aware of the WYD plans.
"They checked to see those names," said Lynn Lypcinski, religious education director and youth minister. "It brought out people and stories for us of parishioners and even their children who went to other World Youth Days. So we got to connect and hear some stories about the past World Youth Days."
The parish has seven teens and four chaperones attending the July 25-31, 2016, event.
"We're looking forward to the enthusiasm and deepening of faith that we can bring home," Lypcinski said.
St. Mary's in Swormville took the cross throughout July, a very busy month for the popular parish. Their summer program, lawn fete and Vacation Bible School all took place during July, so there was a lot of foot traffic to see the cross, which stood to the to the left of the altar with a poster board explaining its history.
"I think they're impressed, especially when I talk to them and I let them know that it was blessed by St. John Paul II, they're just taken back by it," said Ryan Verity, coordinator of youth ministry for St. Mary's.
The casual worshipers have trouble believing that three youths from St. Mary's would join 100 others from the diocese to travel to Poland as part of the world-gathering event.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Verity. "It's a pilgrimage. It's a chance to experience your faith with 2 million plus people from around the world. You really don't get an opportunity like that, and the fact that the diocese has put together this awesome package just made it more readily available for us to take advantage of it. It was really easy to say, this is the best opportune time to do, who knows if the opportunity will ever present itself again."
Each of the international WYD's, which take place every two to three years, offers a unique experience based on its location, indigenous traditions, art and culture.