Vast nature of WYD brings faith into focusBy: Linda Leicht Branson MO
Standing on a hilltop overlooking a park outside of Krakow, Poland, left Will Motazedi awe-struck.
He had been traveling for about a week in Poland with a group of 35 youth and adults to attend World Youth Day (WYD) in Krakow. Things were culminating the evening of July 30 at the all-night, candlelight prayer vigil. The following day, Pope Francis would celebrate Mass, drawing WYD 2016 to a close.
Earlier, the southern Missouri pilgrims walked eight miles from their city hotel to the “Campus Misericordiae,” or “Field of Mercy,” where attendees camped out and slept under the stars, praying, and waiting for the Pope and the papal Mass on July 31. Will, a 17-year-old senior at McAuley Catholic High School in Joplin, and his father, John Motazedi, went looking for food. Given the crowd of some three-million-faithful, it took almost two hours to get something to eat, which left Will upset and cranky. But his bad mood was about to encounter a miracle.
Trekking back to the group’s campsite, they found themselves on the top of a hill overlooking the entire crowd, bathed in candlelight.
A reported three million brothers and sisters in the faith, at the same place at the same time, all for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, July 25-31. Seemed miraculous and magnificent … and holy.
“It was beautiful. It went out as far as the eye could see,” Will said. “All of those people are Catholic. That really got to me. So many people there from across the globe. … They are all Catholic and all there for such a good purpose.”
Initiated in 1985 by Pope St. John Paul II, World Youth Day is traditionally celebrated every three years in a different country. This year it was in Krakow. In 2019, it will be held in Panama. All the while, the World Youth Day Cross will pilgrimage from city to city, town to town, making its way to Panama, lending continuity to the string of events and all those who attend.
“Seeing the pope is not our purpose for going,” said Lynn Melendez, parishioner of Our Lady of the Lake, Branson. “Being with millions of other believers from around the world—the beauty of that—all centered around Christ, is amazing.”
Lynn and her husband, Tony Melendez, have attended every World Youth Day since Tony was invited to perform at World Youth Day Denver in 1993. Tony, a world-renowned musician and evangelist who was born with no arms and plays the guitar with his feet, performed during the opening ceremony of World Youth Day Krakow as Pope Francis arrived.
The couple, along with Tony’s brother, Jose Melendez, coordinated the WYD pilgrimage, which included visits to various beautiful and historical churches and shrines; Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, and its museum; the Chapel of St. Kinga, the “crown jewel of the Wieliczka salt mine”; and Wadowice, Poland, a small city 50 kilometers from Krakow that is the hometown of Pope St. John Paul II. During the trip, adult chaperones watched as the group changed from students to pilgrims.
“Slowly, I noticed the girls have on less makeup, the guys are all wearing the same T-shirt,” Jose said. “You are demasked in this huge gathering of people who love Christ. That’s the beauty of a pilgrimage. You’re just ‘you’ now.”
It’s an understatement that the pilgrimage enabled participants to learn a lot about their faith, the Church in Poland, and the universal nature of Catholicism. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, service was a visible component of the trip. The group volunteered with the Felician Sisters, singing at a nursing home and peeling potatoes at a soup kitchen, all near Krakow.
They met fellow Catholics from around the world and made friends along the way.
Jose’s daughter, Espi, a student at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, MO, was amazed by the friendliness and welcome they received from both the Polish people, their hosts, and by all the many nationalities of people present.
“I kind of expected to make a lot of friends,” Espi said. “But I didn’t expect to have a whole new international family: I have friends from Italy, Poland, and Russia.”
Sharing space with three million people can be overwhelming. Even moving was difficult as the crowds would surge around them, Jose admitted. Sometimes, it was “even scary,” according to Will’s sister, Elizabeth, age 14. But, Jose added, despite the number of people converged in Poland, the crime rate in Krakow went down during the week of World Youth Day.
“I wish that was reported by the news media,” Jose said.
Tony agreed. He said he has never been to any event that is as big as World Youth Day—in the Philippines in 1995 there were six million people—yet he has always experienced the same unity and love.
“[World Youth Day] is a place where faith is renewed,” Tony said.
The last night of World Youth Day, as the group camped out on the hillside, 11-year-old Phillip Motazedi experienced a moment.
“I thought it was really cool to pray at the all-night vigil with three million Catholics … hearing the prayer of Hail Mary in all these different languages,” Phillip said, “… but we are all reciting the same words.”
Returning to southwest Missouri, where Catholics are a minority, the young pilgrims come home from World Youth Day with a renewed faith and confidence.
“I’ve grown stronger in faith,” Will said. “It revived the parts of my faith that I already knew. I kind of got a reboot.” He plans to live his WYD experience at school and in his community.
Leslie Eidson contributed to this article.