The heart of World Youth Day is three days of catechesis, for which the youth are divided into language groups in smaller settings – usually a few hundred – to learn about the faith. These catechesis sessions are usually held in churches, schools, auditoriums, and other locations throughout the host city, and typically everyone stays at the same catechesis site for all three days. For this year’s World Youth Day, one of the catechesis days will be replaced with a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in the Lagiewniki neighborhood of Krakow. Best known as the home of the convent where St. Faustina Kowalska lived and is buried, this shrine is the epicenter of what has become a world-wide devotion to Divine Mercy – which was at the heart of the spirituality of St. John Paul II and is also an integral part of the current Jubilee of Mercy.
This morning, I made my own pilgrimage to Lagiewniki to visit two neighboring shrines – the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and a new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II. Perhaps because it is Saturday, there were large crowds of pilgrims at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary – so many different groups, in fact, that I was never able to completly enter the small convent chapel where St. Faustina is buried and where one of the famous paintings of the Divine Mercy image of Jesus is located. I was only able to stand at the back of the chapel and pray – and this is on a Saturday in March, not in the midst of an event like World Youth Day! But that is also why a large, separate shrine church has been built – in order to accomodate large numbers of pilgrims. And the grounds themselves are quite spacious and offer a number of outdoor shrines.
After spending considerable time in the main shrine church and various other chapels, I made my way to a neighboring hill where the new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II is being built (see below). The new shrine church is completed, but construction is still underway for a catechetical center, a museum, and a pilgrim center. The new St. John Paul II Shrine Church is stunning, with large, colorful mosaics covering the walls. There were very few people there today – not near the crowds as were at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary – but it was well worth a visit, and I hope our pilgrims will be able to visit there as well this July.
Continuing in the pathway of St. John Paul II, I then headed to the Debniki neighborhood, where the future Pope and Saint lived with his father during his teenage and young adult years. It was while living in Debniki that Karol Wojtyla grew in devotion to Mary and in Carmelite spirituality under the guidance of a lay leader at his parish church, Jan Tyranowski. That parish church – St. Stanislas Kostka – is still the heart of this neighborhood today and is where the newly ordained Fr. Karol Wojtyla celebrated his first public Masses as a priest, the day after celebrating private Masses in the St. Leonard Crypt at Wawel Cathedral. Walking through Debniki reminded me of the importance of parishes and local communities in handing on and living the faith. I was able to visit the Church of St. Stanislas Kostka as well as walk by the house where the two Wojtyla men lived during these years (see below). Such a journey reminds us that Saints are real people in real communities with regular families and ordinary lives – but lived in an extraordinary way.
This afternoon, I set out to explore the site of most of the main events during the week of World Youth Day – Blonia Park, where the Opening Mass, Papal Welcome, and Stations of the Cross will be held. It’s a huge, open meadow just outside the Old Town of Krakow and has been the site of numerous papal events over the years – it’s where Pope John Paul II would celebrate a large open-air Mass whenever he returned to his home of Krakow. Across the street is Jordan Park, which will be the Reconciliation Center during World Youth Day. Seeing the sites in person now will help our pilgrimage groups determine how best to be part of these main World Youth Day events.
Tomorrow, I don’t have many things on the formal agenda – Sunday Mass in the morning and then a train ride to Warsaw in the afternoon to get me started on the next leg of my journey into some days of complete vacation. However, I do hope to be able to share some of my general impressions of Krakow and some main points for pilgrims to keep in mind as they prepare for World Youth Day 2016.