World Youth Day: A chance to witness the universality of our church

By Jennifer Kodysz
Guest Columnist

I have known for several years that I was going to attend World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Shortly after World Youth Day 2013, we began discussing preliminary plans to take a group in 2016. At the time, it seemed so far off. Reality hit me this spring as I was lining up my summer schedule. I spent months researching — I followed coverage of the World Meeting of Families to try to get an idea of what to expect when I saw the pope, I talked to everyone I knew who had attended World Youth Day, and I listened to their stories. I took notes, I prayed and I surrendered to God. I was determined to be as prepared as possible. Little did I know that nothing could have prepared me for the experience.
There is no way I could have prepared for the immense amounts of joy that I was surrounded by –– joy exuding from about a million Catholics from all over the world, or for the feeling of solidarity that consumed me as I worshiped with 3 million people in a field at the closing Mass with Pope Francis. 
As incredible as it sounds, World Youth Day also requires sacrifices. World Youth Day, after all, is a pilgrimage. Moving in large crowds is difficult; learning city transportation schedules and destinations is challenging, living out of a suitcase or backpack and pushing your body to the limits by miles of walking and hiking each day can, at times, feel impossible. However, as Father Alberto Borruel, spiritual guide of the diocesan youth pilgrimage and pastor of San José Parish in Austin, encouraged pilgrims to “offer it up,” each challenge turned into prayer.
The Diocese of Austin sent two pilgrimage groups to World Youth day this year: one with youth and adult chaperones and a young adult group. In total, nearly 140 pilgrims attended. I served as a co-leader with Father Borruel for the youth pilgrimage and was blessed to get to know youth and adults from seven different parishes and Catholic schools.
World Youth Day itself, despite the name, is actually six days of events that take place all over the city. The week opened on Tuesday with Mass and then each subsequent evening had an event for pilgrims: everything from talent showcases to the Way of the Cross with Pope Francis. Mornings began with catechesis and Mass at various locations throughout the city, and the afternoons were open to visit places and hear keynote presentations, visit a Vocations Center, receive the sacrament of reconciliation, visit relics of saints, and visit any number of churches and holy places around the city. 
The 2017 theme “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (based on Mt 5:7),” resonated with the Year of Mercy, and set the tone for presentations and gatherings. At the prayer vigil on July 30, Pope Francis listened to testimonies from several youth and said, “This is no time for denouncing anyone or fighting. We do not want to tear down, we do not want to give insult. We have no desire to conquer hatred with more hatred, violence with more violence, terror with more terror. We are here today because the Lord has called us together. Our response to a world at war has a name: its name is fraternity, its name is brotherhood, its name is communion, its name is family.”
Bishops Joe Vásquez and Daniel Garcia attended World Youth Day this year, with this being Bishop Garcia’s first World Youth Day experience. When I asked him to share about his experience, he said he “was profoundly moved by the catechetical sessions and in awe at the attentiveness of the young people to the speakers.” He also shared that “it was very edifying to be around people who were profoundly excited to be Roman Catholic.”
Thomas Snyder, a senior at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin, also attended for the first time. He enjoyed his experience, noting that he has participated in diocesan and national youth ministry events. 
“This is an incredible experience, there’s nothing quite like it,” he said. He also shared that “This is definitely something I would do again as many times as I could simply because it gives me a perspective that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Snce I have returned home, the two questions that people have asked me over and over are what was your favorite part of the trip and what stood out to you the most? I can honestly say that I did not have a favorite part of the trip. The entire experience was unique and blessed in so many ways. I can say, however, that there was a moment early on, before World Youth Day officially began, when our group was taking an orientation tour of Kraków. We had just arrived in the city square, where we saw that crowds of people congregating. 
As we turned a corner to walk down the street, we were suddenly enveloped by so many people — thousands of people carrying flags, chanting and singing. That moment was the first moment when I truly experienced the global nature of the event; it will stay with me forever. 
What stood out the most to me was the universality of our beloved Catholic Church. Attending an event like World Youth day with people who come from all over the world is different than anything I have ever done before; conversing with, meeting and experiencing people from all different cultures was a beautiful growth opportunity. It was an amazing experience of faith and a witness to the vitality of the church.