Guest Columnist World Youth Day 25 years later: mercy is still indispensable for all of us

2005 WYD Matthias Heil 2 Pilgrims gather for the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany by Matthias Heil (CC BY 2.0)

Excitement is building in Poland as millions of young people from over 180 countries descend upon Krakow for the celebration of World Youth Day with Pope Francis.  I remember well my own eagerness 25 years ago as I packed my bags for World Youth Day, then also in Poland but with Pope John Paul II, and it was an experience that changed the trajectory of my life.

Pope John Paul II asked us back in 1991, "How can we fail to be amazed at the heights to which we are called?" The saint had enough confidence in his "dear young people" to call them to a higher vision, a higher ideal than the mediocrity and false ideals that the world presents, indeed he called us to holiness. It was at World Youth Day that I and countless others were inspired to embrace the Church's beautiful and lofty teachings on the vocation of marriage, resulting years later in the blessing of five precious children who I'm sure wouldn't be here otherwise, our eldest named John Paul.

Pope Francis will offer a similar exhortation to today's young people, presenting young families at World Youth Day copies of Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on love in the family.  In a video preview message, Pope Francis said, "The moral and spiritual 'health' of a nation is seen in its families. That is why Saint John Paul II showed such great concern for engaged couples, young married couples and families. Continue along this road!"  This time, like each World Youth Day before, will no doubt plant the seeds for many new vocations to married and religious life. 

However, today's young pilgrims face deeper and stiffer challenges in an increasingly complex and confusing world.  Fittingly, the official theme for this year's World Youth Day is "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy."  In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Church's youth have been called to the nation that gave us the Apostle of Divine Mercy in Saint Faustina Kowalska as well as the man whose zeal for the young originated the very idea that has now turned into the largest gathering of people in the world.

Each stop along the way will serve as a reminder to the young pilgrims and the world that mercy is indispensable for all of us, and accepting that mercy is the first step towards conversion.

The first stop on Pope Francis' itinerary is the centuries-old shrine to the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, just as it was for John Paul II's when I attended 25 years ago. Faith tells us that no one understands our need for mercy better than the Mother of Mercy, but this famous icon perfectly symbolizes that she understands firsthand the misery that war and violence bring. Tradition has it that her image was slashed with swords, and the Virgin appears with sad, iconic eyes and a large scar on her cheek.   

Poland knows the history and horrors of war and violence all too well, and Pope Francis will draw our attention to this as he visits the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Although it is expected Francis will visit these camps in silence, his message of our urgent need for God's mercy will speak loudly and clearly.  He is expected to draw parallels to today's genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

But the journey doesn't end with the haunting memories of Auschwitz. It ends in Krakow, Divine Mercy City, where Pope Francis and his young flock of two million or so will reflect on how to obtain mercy.  Pope Francis will hear the confessions of pilgrims, visit a children's hospital, pray at the Shrine of Saint John Paul II, and walk the Way of the Cross.  He will celebrate a smaller mass with priests and women religious, seminarians and consecrated women. 

On the final day, Pope Francis will be joined by millions of young people on the "Field of Mercy" to celebrate mass and in his words, "offer the world a new sign of harmony, a mosaic of different faces, from many races, languages, peoples and cultures, but all united in the name of Jesus, who is the Face of Mercy." 

Let's join our Holy Father in prayer for these pilgrims, who represent the future of the Church and who offer hope to our broken world.  For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!

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