WYD 2016, Krakow, Poland. What a blessing to be one of 71 pilgrims including Bishop Bill, Fr Greg, Fr Peter, Fr Camillus and Director of our Catholic Schools Office, Ray Collins, for 25 days! Our journey began on 14 July when relationships quickly started to form with fellow pilgrims. As well as WYD, our pilgrimage took us “In the Footsteps of the Saints”.
We arrived in Venice, city of canals, built on water. As we floated we celebrated Mass in St Mark’s Basilica, in a picturesque chapel beneath the main building. The acoustics were amazing, as we soon found out since our ‘pilgrim family’ included some excellent musicians and singers. We also had enough pilgrims to fill a chapel, and a bishop and clergy to celebrate Mass wherever we chose.
Travelling on to Padua, we visited St Anthony’s Basilica where, again, we were able to celebrate Mass in one of the beautiful side chapels. We toured the main church, viewing relics and the tomb of St Anthony, the saint we pray to when we are looking for something we have misplaced. We soon realised that we are all mortal and what we do with our lives, however long or short they might be, is what matters.
Day 5 began with Mass in the Milan Cathedral. What a magnificent building, the architecture and history are unimaginable. Here we climbed to the roof for the most spectacular views over a very proud city and up to the mountains.
The rural Italian countryside is breathtaking and travelling from city to city permits quiet time for reflection on the beauty of our world, the appreciation of new relationships and the blessing of experiencing such a journey.
Visiting the Sanctuary of St Catherine of Siena and the Medieval Cathedral of Siena and walking the ancient narrow lanes, really held personal meaning for us. Being able to walk where Catherine walked, sit where Catherine sat, pray where Catherine prayed, and knowing the work she accomplished and her continuing legacy, held so many emotions.
Assisi is best described as ‘heaven on earth’; what a peaceful village. Travelling to the hills where St Francis meditated and prayed left one in a place of tranquillity. It is easy to understand his connection to nature. Again we were able to celebrate Mass in the chapel belonging to the Friars at the Basilica of St Francis. Witnessing the crucifix that spoke to St Francis, visiting the Monastery of St Damian, the Franciscan Shrine where St Francis heard the voice of Christ, the convent founded by St Clare, exploring the life of St Rita, ‘Saint of the Impossible’, in Cascia, all testified that we were on a journey of a lifetime.
Eucharistic Adoration was held in the Minor Basilica, home to the Eucharistic Miracle.
Visiting Rome, we saw St Peter’s Basilica and Square, the Colosseum, and the Sistine Chapel. The Roman Forum and crossing the Tiber River were all memorable highlights of this eternal city of Italy. Other places visited included St Paul outside the Walls and the Catacombs which were used during the persecutions as places of refuge to celebrate the Eucharist. The Holy Stairs, brought from Jerusalem to Rome around 326 AD by St Helena, are made up of 28 marble steps and are only ascended on the knees. A task easier said than done! The Church of St Alphonsus Liguori houses the original 14th century icon of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’, our diocesan patron, and in this church we celebrated Mass.
Czestochowa – the Black Madonna – is housed in the Jasna Gora Shrine. Pope John Paul II held devotion to the Black Madonna very close to his heart. Here again we celebrated Mass with many English-speaking people, priests and our very own pilgrim chaplain, Fr Greg Barker.
The Australian gathering in the morning and the Opening Mass in the evening, led by the local Cardinal, began WYD 2016 in Krakow. Here was our first experience of one and a half million pilgrims, all gathering for an exciting week ahead and celebrating being a Catholic. Even though many of the celebrations held during WYD were not spoken in English, it was amazing how much we could understand. Each morning, catechesis from bishops all around the world affirmed our Christian values and gave us much to consider about how we live our lives as Catholics.
Attending the Papal Welcome ‘up close and personal’ was beyond words. We saw the Holy Father for the 31st WYD, arriving by tram and departing by Popemobile. We had picked our spot and lined up for hours and we were not disappointed, seeing Pope Francis on both occasions. We prayed together with Pope Francis, listened to the Word of God and the first speech of Pope Francis to the pilgrims of WYD.
The 13 kilometre trek to and from the Vigil and Closing Mass was exhausting, emotionally and physically. To be in the presence of so many like-minded people with the same love of our Good God was uplifting and powerful.
We headed to the mountains of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, an area important to Pope John Paul II’s spiritual life. Here we retreated after the business of WYD. Serenity, peace and beauty: a wonderful place for reflecting on where we have come from and ‘where to now’, as we have had experiences that are life-changing moments.
From the moment you walk through the gate at Auschwitz camps you are overwhelmed with a feeling of fear, sadness and grief for the Polish people and the power and control that the Nazis held over them. No words, no smiles, no photographs could capture these emotions that were common amongst the thousands walking through the camp that day. You cannot imagine the horror, there were no answers to the question, ‘Why’? Greed! Anger! Sadness! But we could pray. Pray for the families, pray for peace, pray for the soldiers and pray for the people of Auschwitz.
We celebrated Mass at St Maximilian Kolbe Church, after which a gentle Irish Sister of Mercy spoke with us about our experiences. Sister Mary asked that we not go away feeling sad but instead renewed and enlightened.
We headed home exhausted but with renewed spiritual energy to share, love, laugh and reflect. When is the next WYD? Panama, South America, 2019.
As our footprints remain embedded in the earth, imprints will be forever in our hearts.