KRAKOW, POLAND - As the sun rose over Krakow's Field of Mercy, over 2 million people woke up in anticipation of Mass with Pope Francis. The current pontiff, following in the footsteps of his predecessors St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, celebrated Sunday Mass on the closing day of World Youth Day.
Pilgrims from the Diocese of Buffalo hiked nearly nine miles to arrive at Campus Misericorde for an overnight vigil and Sunday Mass over the weekend of July 30-31, fighting sweltering heat on the way there and a severe thunderstorm on the way back to their hotel.
From the field, pilgrims watched the Mass on giant video screen and listed along on radios, which broadcast the Mass in a plethora of languages. The organizers of the Krakow event kept water on hand to combat the heat. Security and volunteers were omnipresent, keeping watch over the field, which became so packed, that the Buffalo diocesan group of 150 got pushed back three sections.
"With 2 million in one field, it was difficult to be up close with the pope," said Kristen Hoover, 22, from St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville. "You're in Mass with him and you're in adoration with him. For a lot of people, they need to see the experience to know that it was there. The challenge of the trip was to just trust. Even though you couldn't see the monstrance, even though you couldn't see Communion done right in front of you, it's on a TV screen, you just had to trust that Christ was really there and present in front of you and all His graces were still flowing even though you couldn't see it."
Pope Francis took to the altar at 10 a.m., welcoming the young people who came to meet Jesus. That day's Gospel reading spoke of Zacchaeus, a tax collector, who met Jesus. Pope Francis used this as an example of why some people stay away from the Church or choose not to get close to Jesus.
"Zacchaeus couldn't see the Master because he was little," the pope said. "Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don't feel big enough, because we don't think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation. We have been created in God's own image. Jesus has taken us upon Himself our humanity and His heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy forever with God!
The pope said people often aim lower than they should because they do not believe they have the support of Jesus. "He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always cheering us on," Pope Francis said. Unlike humans, who can let disappointment and depression weigh on them, God is "hopelessly hopeful!"
The Mass closed out nearly a week of catechesis with bishops and cardinals, prayer opportunities, a panel discussion on religious freedom, and festivals with performances big names in Christian music like Matt Maher, Audrey Assad and Tony Melendez, held in Krakow's Tauron Arena.
Francis Beock, 18, from St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, enjoyed the daily catechesis sessions that took place in the days leading up to the vigil. Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York City, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley from Boston and a bishop from the Philippines led the sessions for the Buffalo group.
"They were really able to talk to the young Church and bring in down to our level in a sense. There are a lot of witnesses and a lot of stories, especially about the persecution of the Church, that, I have to admit, brought me to tears. It was very life changing in the arena. The vigil itself is once in a lifetime. I think there are no words to describe it," he said.
World Youth Day, which actually lasts just under a week, is often said to be a life-changing experience. Although people cite Mass with the pope or travel to a foreign country as a reason for going, it is often the smaller prayer moments that have a lasting effect.
"I expected to have a great time and hoping for a amazing experience," said Greg Smith, 27, communications director from St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville. "I had no idea what that experience would be, I was just hoping somehow my life would change. That truly did change. It was when I went through adoration with all the other Americans at the arena, the opening Mass when everyone was singing a song called, 'This Christ is my Life.' I really felt the ultimate happiness, the ultimate calmness in my soul. It's one of those things that is tough to explain to people who are at home and not here. I don't know what I was searching for, but whatever I was searching for I found when I was here."
"You can't come in with any expectations or else it just ruins the whole trip for you," added Kristen Hoover, 22, also from St. Gregory's. "It's been very humbling being people from all over the world and exposed to so many cultures that you wouldn't be exposed to back home. Walking 10 miles a day with everything you need for the day on your back and having to sleep under the stars. That's not something you would do on a normal day."
St. Gregory's began planning the pilgrimage to Poland two years ago, welcoming parishioners and friends ages 16-39 to take part. Leanne Chad, a Presbyterian, heard about the opportunity and decided to join the parish in the trip.
"I thought it was cool to get out of your comfort zone, even though sometimes it was really hard," the 22-year-old said. "It's definitely an awakening. Seeing the pope was great, and I'm not trying to downgrade that experience, but my favorite experience was when we all at the arena and we saw the bishop from Iraq speak on the persecution of Christians, then later meet people from Iraq doing a trade with them. It just opened our eyes to things. They are the nicest people you ever met."
She thinks highly of Pope Francis, and feels he is not just a spokesperson for Catholicism. "You can relate to him. He tries to speak to everybody, and I really respect that," she said.
Nearly 200 people from the Diocese of Buffalo visited Krakow during the July 26-31 event. Many spent time soaking up the local culture, praying in local shrines and churches including the Divine Mercy Shrine dedicated to St. Faustina Kowalsa and Jasna Gora, where the Black Madonna icon hangs.
"I was afraid, as many other young Catholics are afraid, that once the older generations pass on that the Catholic faith will really have trouble getting that youth. But coming to this event today, there were 2 million youth right now who are not only ready to lead the Church, but pass on the beliefs of the Church and words of Jesus Christ to the next generation. The Catholic Church is thriving. It's not on a decline, but an incline," said Smith.
St. John Paul, who created WYD in 1985 to celebrate as well as nurture the gifts of teens and young adult in the Catholic Church, served as patron saint of this year's event along with St. Faustina Kowalska, who had a vision of the Divine Mercy image. Participating in Mass with the pope is commonly cited as the prime attraction for attending the event, which sees up to 6 million. The international event takes place every two or three years.