POLAND—The Diocese of Charleston, with a group totaling at least 50 pilgrims, merged with hundreds of thousands of other youth and adults who made the journey to Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016.
Most of the travelers arrived at least a few days early to tour the historical sites of the host country, absorb the culture, and experience the profound emotion of being part of the universal church.
In their first days, one of the most important words they learned to say in Polish was “dobry” or “good”, a reflection of the positive and friendly culture.
Rhett Williams, a diocesan seminarian, said the first place the group visited was Warsaw, where they saw the remnants of the beautiful architecture where Mass was celebrated in post-World War II churches, since most of Warsaw was destroyed during the war.
The teens said a particularly powerful point of their time in the Polish city was visiting the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, where they heard the story of how the Jewish people survived during the Nazi regime and the inhumanity of their lives.
On the way to Krakow, the travelers stopped at the Tyniec Benedictine Monastery, founded in 1044 A.D. The visitors said there is nothing in the U.S. even remotely like Tyniec, which has stood for almost 1,000 years and is still highly active. Before leaving, they listened, mesmerized, to the monks singing vespers in Latin.
Williams said the teens — and adults — have been overwhelmed by all they have seen so far.
“Our time in Krakow for World Youth Day allows our young people to experience the Church and all of its sacramental glory in a very special way,” he said. “There are religious brothers and sisters in habits everywhere, there are beautiful churches all across Krakow, and there are young, vibrant groups of Catholics walking the streets, flying their country flags with pride. It’s the Church in all its beauty in one place.”
At one point, the pilgrims were taking a break in one of the main squares in Warsaw and noticed travelers from six continents passing through at a single moment.
Along with the beauty and joy of the Church, the South Carolinians also paid homage to the tragic history of Poland.
Among the most powerful sites visited was Auschwitz. The youth said that walking through the concentration camps made the atrocities so much more real.
Daniel Baczmaga, a student at the College of Charleston who attends Blessed Sacrament Church, said witnessing the concentration camps and seeing the crematoriums made him stop and think about the magnitude of God’s love.
“To send His Son to die for each and every single person — not only in the camp but who worked the camp — and that love is just mindboggling. It’s impossible to wrap your head around and it’s just so powerful,” Baczmaga said.
Williams said they had to take some time to process the atrocities, and talked about God’s mercy and prayed for all those in need. They also prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet before moving on to visit the Divine Mercy Shrine and venerate the relics of St. Faustina. The group then celebrated Mass in the St. John Paul II Shrine with Father Paul Nguyen.
“The emotional intensity of the group during and after Mass was palpable after such an intense day of such atrocities in the morning and then such mercy in the afternoon,” Williams said. “I don’t think it was a day that any of our young people or leaders will soon forget.”
As the sightseeing portion of their trip drew to a close, Father Jason Caganap, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Goose Creek, with his group of 17, said he knows one of the most memorable moments will be seeing Pope Francis, even if it is from far away.
Father Jason said they are always mindful of safety, “but we must trust the Lord that we’ll be safe and ask for His blessings.”
As prayers continue to flow for the safety of all, the youth said they have already been moved and changed by their days in Poland, even before the commencement of World Youth Day.
“When they’re 60, they’ll be telling their grandkids about it,” said Karene Feltner, a parishioner at St. Theresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville, which sent 10 pilgrims to the festivities.
Featured photo provided: Youth and adult leaders from the Diocese of Charleston take a moment to reflect at Calvary Sanctuary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Poland, before the start of World Youth Day, which began on July 26.