“Follow me!” (John 21:19)
Christianity, like the Jewish faith which gave birth to it, is a religion of pilgrimage. From the time when God called Abraham, through the journey of the chosen people of the Exodus who were brought out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, and on through the call of the first apostles by the Sea of Galilee, the God of Israel speaks a word of love to his beloved sons and daughters, calling them to come on pilgrimage with him: “Follow me” (John 21:19). The external act of following can only take place after an interior movement of trust has taken place. The uncertainty of leaving what is familiar and stepping forward into an unknown future makes sense only when the heart is filled with a love that says to the Beloved, “Wherever you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16).
World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow has been an extraordinary pilgrimage with the Merciful Jesus, accompanied by the two great saints of Mercy, St. Faustina Kowalska and St. John Paul II. These days of grace have been the occasion of a sort of homecoming for World Youth Day itself as the party came home to the place where it all began. As a young priest entrusted with the pastoral care of the university students of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla’s pastoral vision was one of constant pilgrimage. This was more than just a necessary response to the communist oppression of public religious expression. By taking young people into the outdoors for hiking, recreation, and prayer together, Wojtyla recognized that there is a special grace in going away from one’s usual surroundings in order to experience the presence of God in beauty and to encounter Christ in one another.
After his election to the papacy, John Paul II continued in his desire to bring young people together for prayer and encounter, and beginning in 1986 this encounter was formalized as the event known to the church as World Youth Day. The pilgrim pope unceasingly traveled to all the nations of the world, always seeking to meet with young people, entrusting them with the mission of proclaiming the gospel to the modern world and telling them with love how much Christ was counting on them. Last week the pilgrimage returned to Krakow, and the young people of the world got a taste of the vibrant church and culture which gave birth to the pastoral vision of the great Pope of Mercy, St. John Paul II.
United in Love for Christ
Shortly before leaving Krakow, I asked a young man from Minnesota what he was taking into his heart from all that we have been experiencing in these days. He said to me, “On my college campus, everyone walks around staring into their phones and never smiling, but here there is a constant joy on everyone’s face. My generation is very lonely, but there is an absence of loneliness here.” What struck me about his comment is that the joy we are experiencing here has nothing to do with our geographical location. As beautiful as Krakow is, it is the fact that we are all here together on pilgrimage that unites us—our mutual poverty is that we are all traveling together, even those pilgrims who come from Poland itself, and this shared experience makes us able to share our faith, even despite our totally different languages, through smiles and snacks and songs and prayer. We recognize that underneath our different national identities we are united in our love for Jesus Christ and for each other, and this love naturally comes bursting forth in the enthusiastic exuberance that fills the hearts of the young.
Now that we have returned, the question is: How do we continue to live our life as an experience of pilgrimage? For if we do, the burdens we all carry will be made much lighter through the joy of the gift of loving friendship of those we meet along the way, to say nothing of the joy of the gift of the Holy Spirit that is always given where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus. Although the road may be long and difficult, every step will also contain a grace of loving presence, which is to say the gift of Divine Mercy. This is the gift we have received here in Krakow and which we now wish to bring home with us to our native lands.
In his homily at the closing Mass of World Youth Day, Pope Francis challenged us to continue to live in the spirit of these days, to take a bit of the grace received here in Krakow home with us:
We can say that World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. … He wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies, your first years of work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and your dreams. How much he hopes that … each day, pride of place be given to the golden thread of prayer.
Trust Learned in Prayer
Prayer is truly the “golden thread” tying every pilgrimage together, for it is in prayer that the soul draws in the breath of the Holy Spirit and drinks of the fountain of grace needed to persevere along the Way of the Cross which is the only way to the kingdom of heaven.
During my time in Krakow, I carried a plastic bag full of prayer intentions with me that were given to me by my parishioners, praying with them and for them at the various shrines and Masses. Carrying this physical reminder with me helped to keep my heart attentive to my need to offer intercessory prayer and to offer my fatigue and the challenges of each day as a form of penance and petition for others.
After the Papal Mass, I went on pilgrimage to Czestochowa, and I left that plastic bag underneath the icon of the Black Madonna, the beautiful and powerful Queen of Poland. As I was leaving the shrine, I realized that I no longer needed to worry about carrying my little bag—I felt “lighter” because I had left all my concerns in the arms of the Blessed Mother. This too was a grace for me, the realization that the journey is impossible apart from trusting that our loving Mother Mary will carry us just as she carried the Infant Jesus to Egypt and as she cared for her son each year on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The trust learned in prayer is the key to having the lightness of heart needed to keep climbing even when the path is difficult and anxiety threatens to take away the peace of the Lord’s loving presence.
And So Now the Journey Continues!
We go forth to the next stage of our pilgrimage, knowing that wherever the path may lead us the Lord Jesus who always says, “Follow me!” will be with us, accompanying us with his infinite Mercy. This is the path Pope St. John Paul II showed us how to follow through the course of his life pilgrimage from Wadowice to Krakow to Rome and then to the whole world.
As then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily for the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II, “In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father went to the very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterwards, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings.” In other words, John Paul II did the will of God as it unfolded in his life through the mystery of Divine Providence. This trustful surrender, at the heart of the message of Divine Mercy, enables every soul to come close to the Heart of Jesus, Love Incarnate, and there find the home, peace, love, and assurance for which every human heart is made.
Our pilgrimage is one of trust. The saints have gone before us through the desert of this life, and now they joyfully pray for us and ask God to keep us on the path so that we may join them very soon. This World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow has been, in a beautiful and powerful way, St. John Paul II’s World Youth Day. Many, many people have told me that they have sensed his presence here tangibly throughout these graced days. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in that same funeral homily, “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” Thank you, St. Faustina and St. John Paul II, for calling us to Krakow for this World Youth Day! Please accompany us now as the journey to the Father’s house continues, always close to Jesus who says to each of us with so much love, “Follow me!”
St. Faustina, pray for us.
St. John Paul II, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us.
Come, Holy Spirit!!