So this was it. The main event. We had been preparing for this for months – the 13km walk to Campus Misericordiae (Field of Mercy), the Vigil, the final Mass and the walk back to our hotel. We knew it wasn’t for the faint-hearted. We knew it was going to take a long time. We knew that there would most likely be some challenges along the way. We knew that it would be uncomfortable and exhausting.
And boy, were we right!
We set off in two groups – the advance group, whose mission it was to claim a space for the night in our designated section, and the second group, including the under-18s, who left a couple of hours later.
The challenges began almost as soon as we started the walk with the soles literally falling off John Leao’s shoes. We tried to tie them on and tape them up, but eventually it was more comfortable for John to simply take the soles off altogether.
We were lulled into a false sense of security at the start because even though there were large crowds we were moving along at a steady pace. We eventually stopped in a small village on the outskirts of Krakow and found refuge from the heat in the front garden of a lovely lady who opened her house to pilgrims so that we could use the bathroom. It was these small acts of kindness along the way that really helped us keep going.
After this rest stop we continued on our way and basically hit a human roadblock. We barely moved for hours. Brian was on the phone constantly getting updates from the advance group so we knew that the hold-up was basically a massive queue for the food packs far ahead. Brian, Sue and I were separated from the main group for a long section of the walk (or shuffle, as it was in many parts). It is really hard to describe how many people there were, how hot it was and how long it was between drinks!
We eventually got to the very long road that leads in to Campus Misericordiae. It stretched for kilometres and every pilgrim going this way had to converge under a bridge. As the roads were closed, pilgrims were spread out over 6 lanes but once we got to the bridge we all had to squeeze through via only two lanes. This is when things got really hairy! Every group was naturally trying to stay together, forming long lines and trying to cut across at the same time. The feeling of going under that bridge was like being sucked into a whirlpool. We were literally dragged, pushed and squeezed through. You had no control over the pace at which you went. Brian, Sue and I simply hung onto each other’s’ backpacks and hoped for the best!
Once on the other side we breathed a huge sigh of relief, especially as we had caught up to the main group and Baden Ellis and James Elliott had walked back from our camp site to meet us and guide us through. There was still a fair way to walk to our section and because it was near a quarry we had to walk over uneven aggregate for some time which was not easy for John’s feet or Sue’s knee. There were no food packs available until much later so we continued on to the campsite which was the final stretch but felt like it took a long time.
I can’t really describe what it felt like to finally make it and see the smiling faces of those who had arrived ahead of us; those brave MN pilgrims who had guarded our space so that there would be enough room for all of us to sleep that night. To say we were relieved to get there and sit down is an understatement. We had been on the road for 8 hours, in the heat, with no lunch and our water had run out long ago. We were exhausted, we smelt, we had red faces and sore feet. But we had made it.
Our camp site was behind the massive stage they had built especially for the vigil and final Mass and very close to the port-a-loos and a tent full of water bottles. In order to see the big screen we had to walk through the toilets and outdoor urinals which were set up in a U shape!
We set up our beds and shared our experiences with each other while trying to rehydrate and rest. It wasn’t long before Pope Francis arrived and the vigil began as the sun started to set. We set ourselves up in front of the big screen to watch. Candles were handed out and lit and before too long the field was glowing. It was beautiful.
While we listened to Pope Francis a small group from our pilgrimage set off to get some food bags for everyone who had not received one yet. This expedition took them 3 hours. We have been talking about mercy all week and this was a wonderful act of mercy from our own group. This generosity was so appreciated, even if the rice and vegetables were not! The students were happy that the packs contained some Nutella, however.
Pope Francis spoke wonderfully about how young people at WYD now have a face to put to the stories they only hear about on the news.
“For us, here, today, coming from different parts of the world, the suffering and the wars that many young people experience are no longer anonymous, something we read about in the papers. They have a name, they have a face, they have a story, they are close at hand,” he said.
He encouraged the young not to become complacent.
“Dear young people, we didn’t come into this work to “vegetate”, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history because life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark,” the Pope said.
Please take the time to read what he said here. It was a moving experience to hear the hush of the crowd and the spontaneous applause.
After Pope Francis finished his reflection there was prayer and a song, Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and a blessing.
When it was over we met people from all around the world who were camping nearby, played cards, ate and relaxed. We were blessed with a lovely night and thankfully no rain. One by one we made our way into our sleeping bags to try to sleep. Some people were asleep before their head touched their makeshift pillow while others, including myself, took a little longer to drop off. Considering there were over a million people there it was wonderfully quiet throughout the night and early morning. Some of us tossed and turned while others slept like they were on a bed of duck feathers (or so it sounded like from the snoring going on)!
I couldn’t believe it when I woke up and it was 6am. I hadn’t expected to sleep at all (it’s been a long time since I’ve been camping in the bush). I was so happy to have had 5 or 6 hours sleep because of course the return walk was looming large in our minds.
The music and singing started pretty much straight away. There have been so many great singers and musicians here. It’s a shame that we were so bleary-eyed; we couldn’t appreciate it fully, especially since we were so close to the port a loos that had been used many times by now.
Still, many in the group started dancing and singing; James Hakim just stood up in his sleeping bag and joined in! There was a joyful vibe. We packed up our gear, ready to leave straight after the final Mass. Most were leaving their sleeping bags to donate to charity.
The lines for the toilets were very long in the morning even though no one wanted to use them. What is seen cannot be unseen is all I will say!
It was a very hot morning and we were feeling the heat. There was no shade. They ran out of still water which was preferred by everyone. They had stacks of fizzy water left but it is unpleasant to drink, especially when it’s basically warm. Ailis Macpherson and Brian Fennel-Fraser spent ages trying to get the fizz out of numerous bottles so that we had enough water for the long walk home.
Eventually, Pope Francis arrived and the final Mass commenced. It was, once again, a moving experience. Pope Francis reminded everyone gathered of God’s love for us.
“The fact is, he loves us even more than we love ourselves. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always ‘cheering us on’; he is our biggest fan. He is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries,” he said.
I was struck by the reverence of people and the focused participation in the Eucharist. Priests appeared in our section to give out communion. The priest closest to our group did not have someone accompanying him with an umbrella to keep the sun at bay so Brian Lacey and Joseph Thomas used a mat someone had slept on as a shelter for him. Again, small acts of kindness and mercy were wonderful to witness.
At the end of Mass it was announced that the next World Youth Day would be held in Panama, Central America. This announcement seemed to take everyone by surprise, but on reflection, fits perfectly with the Pope’s propensity to astonish people.
Unfortunately, throughout the Mass, people were collapsing from heat exhaustion and dehydration at quite an alarming rate. Thankfully, there were plenty of paramedics on the scene and all were treated with love and care. Our diocesan pilgrims are made of sturdy stuff and while many of them didn’t feel that great, no one needed medical attention.
At the conclusion of Mass we tidied up our camp site as best as we could and left, hopeful that it wouldn’t take as long as yesterday.
We were wrong!
Before long our group had split in two and the group I was with had a rest in the shade before going back under the bridge, which in the end, wasn’t as bad as it had been on the way in. It still wasn’t great, but we didn’t feel like lemon pips being squeezed out.
We got onto the main road and just walked, and walked, and walked. It was the road that never ended. People from other groups were collapsing on the side of the road, but again treatment was prompt. Baden Ellis administered first aid to one of these poor pilgrims until the paramedics arrived. Grey clouds started to appear in the sky and we pushed on.
After hours of walking and a few showers we reached a bridge just as a thunderstorm commenced in earnest. We took shelter under the bridge through the worst of it before making the decision to push on; a hot shower and our soft bed our only motivators.
We finally made it to the outskirts of Krakow and then to the start of the transport hub. Again, our group was split in two since there were so many pilgrims trying to get on the tram that for once we couldn’t all fit on. Baden went with the group that managed to squeeze on and James stayed with us. Both of them had mastered the transport system so we were in safe hands.
After a couple of trams and a bus we finally made it home and there was John Leao with his flag along with a greeting party. It was so great to see them and again be welcomed back so warmly. The group we had been split from, which included a number of the students, arrived home shortly after, much to everyone’s relief.
We were exhausted, sunburnt and wet. Our shoulders, ankles, calf muscles and hips were aching. We all had the best shower of our lives before gathering together again for some dinner and reflection.
If you asked me if I would do it all again, I would say ‘Yes, in a heartbeat’. It was one of the great adventures of my life. The walking, the stress, the weather and the crowds are what made it so special. Without the challenges, the vigil and the final Mass would not have had the same resonance. But the best part of all was the bonding that happened between our pilgrims; the sense of achievement we all felt and the little acts of mercy we bestowed upon each other.
John Leao’s joy at the vigil, after walking for 8 hours without soles on his shoes, was something so special to behold. Such tenacity and faith. James Elliott helped John move along to the camp site as his feet were a little worse for wear by the time he arrived. Everyone helped each other.
Teenagers can sleep anywhere!
All that walking in Italy was training for these two days – we were fitter than we might otherwise have been!
Ray Collins stood out the front of the hotel until all the students, teachers and other pilgrims had returned. He kept vigil for them and was visibly relieved when they all returned safe and sound.
I thought about refugees a lot on the way out. We had a tiny glimmer of what so many who flee persecution and war have to endure for much longer and with no resolution is sight. It was humbling.
OBSERVATIONS: The long road out
“Getting to Campus Misericordiae was a challenge. It was crowded, it was hot and at times you were almost crushed by the sheer volume of people and I wondered, ‘why am I doing this?’ But when we arrived and were greeted by the other people in our group who had gone ahead to set up a campsite, I knew why I’d done it. The Pope’s speech at the vigil, directed very specifically to young people, and seeing so many hanging on to his every word, was inspiring.”
OBSERVATIONS: The vigil
“I was fortunate to receive a ticket that allowed me to access a special zone in front of the altar at the vigil. For me, this was one of the highlights of my pilgrimage. To see Pope Francis in the flesh and listen to his inspiring message is a memory I will cherish forever.”
OBSERVATIONS: The long road home
“The students in the final group to return, arrived thirty hours after they had left the day before. They had been sunburnt, slept rough on the ground with a million others, rained on and stuck in a thunderstorm, as well as being part of the biggest Mass they had ever been to. On arrival they said, ‘We made it! What an amazing experience with fantastic people!’ They had massive smiles and were laughing together as they arrived.”