Pilgrims from the Diocese of Charleston returned from World Youth Day with an altered perspective on the meaning of the Year of Mercy, along with a lifetime of memories, and moments that impacted their lives.
For some, it was the vigil and closing Mass with Pope Francis and millions of other Catholics; for others it was the time spent absorbing the history of Poland itself.
From the reverent celebration of Mass in famous basilicas, to a reminder during a visit to Auschwitz of why the world needs God’s mercy, the abiding lesson was the power and breadth of the faith.
Kathy Schmugge, director of the Office of Family Life, spoke of the incredible impact being in Poland during the Year of Mercy had on the pilgrims.
“It was in this country that the great messengers of mercy, St. Faustina, Pope St. John Paul II, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, and Blessed Jerzy Popielusko would call home,” she said. The group visited many of the places these legends walked, and some stood at the exact spot where St. Maximillian offered his life in exchange for a Jewish man’s life during the Holocaust.
Schmugge, whose roots originate in Poland, has a heartfelt connection. “When we arrived on Polish soil, I wanted to kiss it as I had seen Pope John Paul II do so many times,” she said, adding that their time there was “a testimony of a culture tested time and again that would not give up its beloved Catholic faith.”
Rhett Williams, a diocesan seminarian, said the visit to Poland and participation in WYD provided a lesson in the power of Catholic identity and its place in society, noting that they encountered over 1.5 million points of encouragement — the estimated number of attendees.
“Almost without fail, every young person I spoke to at WYD said they were most impacted by the sheer multitude of young people of the same age, with the same passion and drive as them for the Catholic faith. Each person commented on how seeing that revitalized their desire to live the faith, knowing that there were youth in 187 other countries striving to do the same,” Williams said.
Kayleigh Judge, from St. Francis by the Sea Church in Hilton Head, echoed that sentiment, noting that she did not realize how many Catholics there were in the world until she attended the WYD vigil.
That day, for many, was the highlight of the pilgrimage as they were surrounded by millions of voices raised in exuberance, yelling “Papa! Papa!” as Pope Francis rode by, waving to the crowd, at the welcome ceremony for World Youth Day.
Anastasia Pierce, from St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, said it was the most impactful moment of the trip for her. “You could feel this supernatural joy that I’d never felt before … you could tell he truly, genuinely loved you,” she said.
During the vigil celebration, Pope Francis told the crowd that life is like a soccer match, because it “only takes players on the first string and has no room for benchwarmers. 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.”
Several of the adult leaders said that is a lesson everyone needs to bring home with them.
Featured photo provided: From left, seminarians Patrick Judd and Rhett Williams stand with Rachel Neubauer, diocesan associate director of Young Adult Ministry, and Anna Marie Corder during the opening Mass July 26.