As of May 2017, these blogs won third prize in the Catholic Press Association Student Awards for Catholicism.
Blog 8 – Final Day and Reflecting, Aug. 7
The last day in Krakow was the big tourist day. We had the opportunity to really explore parts of the city we had yet to see. Many of us visited Wawel Castle and Cathedral, which were breathtaking. From there, my group saw a bunch of other churches. Honestly, churches are like street vendors—there’s one practically on every street in Krakow. I’m not complaining though; I think it’s amazing!
From there, some of us went into the Jewish Quarter of Krakow and crossed the river to see Oskar Schindler’s factory. For those who don’t know of Schindler’s factory, watch the movie Schindler’s List. Be warned: it is an emotional movie. After wrapping up the day with some dinner, some of us headed home to begin the disappointing task of packing. Others continued to celebrate one last time in the cultural capital of Poland. I was one who needed to pack up as soon as possible.
I was in disbelief that I had to finally leave Krakow. I really didn’t want to go. I’d met so many great people during this pilgrimage, both brother knights and complete strangers out on the streets of Krakow. The locals of Krakow were so inviting and cheerful. Most were happy to see so many people from around the world enjoying the city they call home, although they could probably go without the headache of swimming through the seas of people.
From there, we had a 2 a.m. wake-up call and a 2:45 departure time to the Krakow airport. We landed in Berlin around 8 a.m. and departed from Berlin around 1 p.m. The flight back to JFK airport in New York City was a little over eight hours. After that, we said our many goodbyes and all went our separate ways.
As nice as it was to be back in the U.S., I still felt a longing to go back to Poland, as if part of me was left behind and still wanders those streets. I miss our fearless Dominican chaplains we supported us on this trip. I miss the Sisters of Life who brought us smiles during this pilgrimage. I miss all my brother knights. We came together from different parts of the world and left a huge mark on one another’s lives as we experienced Krakow and World Youth Day as one.
Photo credit: Spirit Juice Studios
I’ve had a lot of time to really reflect on this pilgrimage now. Before I left, I felt this calling to Krakow, as if I had some purpose I’d serve there. I knew I’d be volunteering, but I felt like there was something more to my purpose being there. Initially, I thought my volunteering job would be directing people or something along those lines, which I definitely did, but I didn’t expect to have a huge interaction with the other pilgrims. I handed out water to those in need, and others showed mercy to me by providing for me at times.
All of those taught me lessons, but I don’t fully think that was my true calling to Poland. When I got home, I had tons of people talk to me about my trip. Most assumed it was just some vacation I was taking. When I really got talking to them, I was able to explain my role in Poland and give a better explanation about the faith. I became this ambassador for Christ by clearing up many misunderstandings about Catholics. At the same time, I was a role model to some. One person close to me said that he is seriously thinking about becoming Catholic after seeing everything I was doing in Poland and everything I’ve experienced. He was so moved by the faith of me and millions of other pilgrims that he considered it time to really consider becoming Catholic.
If I’ve learned anything from this World Youth Day, it’s that the Lord works through all of us if we allow him. He loves all of us. He wants all of us to seek his mercy and love him back. All you have to do is open up your heart and let him. Do not be afraid! He is calling!
“Today Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, is calling you to leave your mark on history.”
Blog 7 – July 31, Morning Mass with the Pope
Sleeping under the night sky felt great. In simple terms, it was a sleepover with two and a half million friends, outside in a giant field. One would expect it to be loud and obnoxious, but it wasn’t all that bad. Occasionally, a siren from an ambulance or police van would go off, or someone would start a chant in some far-off section and it would wake you. But overall, it was pleasant. Waking to the 5 a.m. sunrise was a beautiful way to start what would turn into an adventurous day.
The papal mass was to begin at 10 am. As the morning went on, more and more people trickled into Campus Misericordiae. Many people were not able to get into sections and had to sit outside of the fences lining sections. The service started on time, which is unusual for a papal mass. In my past experience, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the papal mass started somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes late.
The gospel for the mass was from Luke 19:1-10, which talks of Jesus traveling through Jericho and his interaction with Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector. Pope Francis spoke of the obstacles Zacchaeus had to overcome to be able to see Jesus and how they can relate to us World Youth Day pilgrims. He mentions how, like Zacchaeus, we don’t feel big enough, or worthy, to getting close to Jesus. Francis said that we must realize that we are God’s children and we are worthy of him. “No one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts,” Francis said. Francis noted that we may feel “the paralysis of shame” when it comes to meeting Jesus. Francis said “don’t be ashamed to bring everything to the Lord in confession, especially your weaknesses, your struggles and your sins.” The Lord will forgive us of all our faults.
Francis also brought up that not all weaknesses are internal. We may feel criticism from people around us. Like Zacchaeus, who was being judged by the crowd who tried to block him from Jesus, people will try to prevent us from reaching Jesus because we are too bad for him. We need to not reject people from reaching God’s mercy. Francis said, “Don’t be discouraged: with a smile and open arms, you proclaim hope and you are a blessing for our one human family, which here you represent so beautifully!” This was a perfect ending to World Youth Day. Pope Francis taught pilgrims to go forth as followers of Christ: we should not be afraid to bring all of our issues to the Lord, lay them all out for him, and welcome everyone.
At the end of every World Youth Day, as the mass comes to a close, the Pope is to announce the location and year of the next World Youth Day. Over the course of the whole pilgrimage, I heard from many different people rumors of where the next World Youth Day would be. I heard it might be in Panama, South Korea, even Atlanta. Surprisingly enough, one of the rumors proved to be true. The location of the next World Youth Day will be in Panama. It will be the first time that World Youth Day will be in a Central American country.
After the mass, we all packed up and began the long trek back, along with 3 million of our closest friends. A had a lot of time to really reflect on my purpose on my pilgrimage on the walk back and that night. God called all of us to this city in Poland for a very good reason. We were all beginning to discover that reason.
“The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away: so many people are waiting for it!”
Blog 6 – July 30, The Vigil
This was the next big part of World Youth Day. The three major events during World Youth Day are the papal greeting, the vigil, and the papal mass. Pope Francis hosts a vigil in the evening where the theme of World Youth Day is examined. This year was “blessed are the merciful,” which is very fitting seeing that this year is the Year of Mercy. The reason for the vigil is to help open the hearts of the youth and help them to live better Christian lives now and in the future.
One challenge about these three major events is that millions of people attend. Those in charge of planning World Youth Day must find a place where these masses can converge, provide any facilities necessary, and determine how the pilgrims can travel to these sites. The planners for this World Youth Day found a swamp outside Krakow; filled areas with sand, dirt and rocks; and created a living space for the 2 to 2.5 million pilgrims that came to the vigil this year. The area, located in Brzegi, just outside Krakow, was given the name “Campus Misericordiae” (Mercy Campus in Latin).
The biggest challenge for me was hiking the five miles to the site, as buses, taxis and Uber drivers could only go a certain distance before having to turn around. So we walked all the way there, eventually running into a massive traffic jam of at least 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims. I’ve never been so physically close to that many people in my life. One of the guys traveling with my group noted that this is what Purgatory (to Catholics, this is basically a waiting room to purify souls before going to heaven) felt like. With the massive crowds of people jammed together, all sweating because of the 80 degree heat, I have to agree with him. It was a purification process before receiving mercy at the Campus Misericordiae, which took JUST 4 or 4.5 hours (and normally takes only 2 hours). No big deal really (sarcasm).
You don’t realize the size of Campus Misericordiae until you see it from the highway next to it. To get to our section, we had to walk along a huge portion of highway closed off from cars. From there, we saw the massive section which would house pilgrims from hundreds of different nations. We also saw the stage from which Pope Francis would host the vigil later that evening and mass the next morning.
I was one person in 2.5 million people who experienced the advice of Pope Francis. He laid out his wishes for the youth of the church. He wanted us to go out and tell of the good news, to do something active with our lives. As Pope Francis said, we have too many “couch potatoes” out there. We need an active youth in the church. As youth, we are the ones who have the most energy and have great potential to be tools and witnesses of God’s mercy. We can do so much. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives sitting around.
I had a lot of time to really reflect on the past few days as I tried make the full connection of what I was called to do. I was getting closer.
“Dear young people, do not be mediocre; the Christian life challenges us with great ideals.”
Blog 5 – July 29, World Youth Day Begins
World Youth Day began with a bang. There are at least 2 million people (maybe 2.5 million people) that travel into Krakow every day to experience the events for World Youth Day. That number doesn’t even include those already living in Krakow and trying to move around the city! This is the most people I’ve seen congregated into one area. It is absolute insanity trying to get into the old city of Krakow.
As one travels around the city, you can’t but help hear the chanting of millions of people in many different languages. At one moment you will hear a group chanting in French. The next might be Polish. After that, it could be English, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, or even Afrikaans. Residents of six continents have descended into Krakow to experience World Youth Day and have an encounter with our Lord, Jesus Christ.
For me personally, I’ve felt His presence all around this wonderful city. My first notable encounter with Christ during this pilgrimage was during my time volunteering at the Mercy Centre. The College Knights have been tasked with being ambassadors for the Mercy Centre. We are the face of the Order. We interact with others, direct traffic, answer questions, and hand out programs and water to those who wait in line for the Mercy Centre. People have been so grateful for what we have done for them. I handed out water to many English-speaking groups who thanked me all the time. One group fanned me off when they saw me sweating as I brought them water to drink. In a way, Christ has been working through everyone at the Mercy Centre because everyone has been so pleasant and joyous.
My next encounter was much deeper. The Mercy Centre hosted an event called the Night of Mercy on July 27. Christian artists Matt Maher and Audrey Assad performed. Two speakers also gave speeches: Bishop Robert Barron and Joel Stepanek. Both were absolutely phenomenal speakers and made the Night of Mercy all the more moving.
Along with all of that, there was Eucharistic adoration during this evening. For those who don’t know, Eucharistic adoration is where the Blessed Sacrament (consecrated host) is put into what is called a monstrance. The monstrance will hold the host in such a way that the faithful can adore it. As Catholics, we believe that when a priest is blessing the bread and wine, it becomes the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, through transubstantiation. Eucharistic adoration is as if the faithful are meeting Jesus face-to-face, in a way.
With all of this during the Night of Mercy, I felt so moved and so loved. It helped me realize that there is still hope for me in life. One thing that they kept telling us is to stop, listen and open up our hearts to hear what God has to say. God is calling each and every one of us to something special. We all have a place in this world, and God needs us. He knows what is best for us and wants us to listen. He knows life all the struggles we will have in life. He is reaching out to us halfway; we must listen and meet him the rest of the way. I am still praying and trying to figure out what God wants me to do, but I felt touched by God.
Photo by Tyler Wisniewski
The next encounter I had was on July 28. Our group traveled to the Papal Welcome in Błonia Park. We were positioned in the volunteer section, which was close to the stage, but off to the right side of it. While what the Pope had to say was inspiring and touching, I saw Christ in the pilgrims who attended. Everyone was so kind and caring for each other. As the excitement grew, people exchanged high-fives and cheered each other on. At one point, an Australian guy, maybe 16 or 17 years old, said he wanted a hug because “I’ve never hugged a Knight before.” So I did. Normally, we wouldn’t hug random strangers, but in this case, we were one family–one giant family from six continents and hundreds of countries.
All of this has helped reinforce in me the certainty that God is not dead. The Church is as youthful as it ever has been. The Church is not on its way out with the coming generations. It is here to stay and proclaim the good news of the Lord.
“The Cross is the word through which God has responded to evil in the world. Sometimes it may seem as though God does not react to evil, as if he silent. And yet, God has spoken, he has replied, and his answer is the Cross of Christ: a word which is love, mercy, forgiveness.”
Blog 4 – July 28, To the City of Saints
We’ve finally arrived to the part I’ve been most excited for: We’ve made it to Krakow, probably the holiest city outside Rome. Many saints have come from Poland and Krakow. Saint Faustina, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and Saint John Paul II have all been in the city at one point or another, and all of them have made a lasting impact.
Our first stop was Lagiewniki, a small area right outside Krakow, where we stopped at the Saint John Paul II Center. The whole building was finished about two weeks before our arrival! The basilica has the most vibrant and beautiful mosaic art along the inside walls. Within a basilica, there are normally small chapels where the faithful can go to pray. In one of the side chapels, there was a kneeler in front of a case that contained the cassock Saint John Paul II was wearing in 1981 when a man attempted to assassinate him by shooting him from the crowd. That blood-stained cassock serves as a reminder why Saint John Paul II inspires me to never give up on anything. He survived the Nazis, the Soviets, and an assassination attempt. On top of that, he met with the shooter and FORGAVE him! I’m always looking for role models of great faith; he is definitely someone I look up to as a faithful and persistent man. He gives me hope that I can do great things with God.
From there, we walked over to the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and the convent where the Sisters of Divine Mercy live. The most notable thing here is that this is where Saint Faustina had her visions of Jesus. This is where the Divine Mercy painting comes from and the famous line “Jesus I trust in you.” Mass was said in the convent chapel where Saint Faustina would have prayed. Being there gave me the opportunity to really think and pray about days past and days yet to come. I laid out all my worries to the Lord and really took the words “Jesus I trust in you” to heart.
From there, we had a tour of the city with George Weigel, author of City of Saints. George is an expert on Saint John Paul II and Poland. He showed us buildings significant to Saint John Paul II and some of the most lovely churches in Krakow. I was completely blown away by the beauty of some of the churches. The Franciscan church, in particular, was so beautiful to me that I nearly cried. With the paintings and the architecture, it was the best church I have ever seen in my entire life. For some reason, I love architecture and think that buildings with complex designs or history are beautiful. On top of that, Saint Maximillian Kolbe lived in the Franciscan monastery right next door, making this church even more significant and interesting.
The day after arriving in Krakow, we were shown where we would be volunteering: the Tauron Arena, the largest arena in Poland. The Knights of Columbus have contracted it out to run what they call the “Mercy Centre.” This Mercy Centre will hold opportunities to learn about the faith, pray, confess sin, praise and worship.
I never realized so much holiness was in the city of Krakow. Many saints have passed through here and impacted the Krakow culture. I feel blessed to have this unbelievable opportunity to be in this holy city touched by Saint Faustina, Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint John Paul II. Krakow itself can help people see Christ with all the saints it has provided as role models. Krakow is the perfect place to seek mercy.
“Find new ways to spread the word of God to every corner of the world.”
Post #3 – July 22 & 23, The Long Trek
It’s official: Poland is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen (which, to be honest, isn’t saying much, as I haven’t traveled far). The natural beauty is everywhere.
Both Friday and Saturday, we hiked the Tatra Mountains, a vast range that borders southern Poland and crosses into Slovakia. The amount of trees and mountains make for the most picturesque scenes. Nature has never excited me this much ever.
The first day was the shorter of the two excursions, as we hiked about 30 minutes up a mountain. Later on we had mass at a Dominican church. The Dominicans are an order of brothers who take certain vows and dedicate their lives to Christ. The Church is run by three Dominicans who basically live in the middle of nowhere—it makes Loretto seem like a bustling metropolis.
The following day, we traveled to another portion of the Tatra Mountains that were right on the border of Slovakia. We hiked two hours inward to where our first break was for an outdoor mass. With the mountains in the background and lambs being herded by a shepherd, it was a perfect scene. A few Polish hikers even stopped by and came to mass!
After that, we had the option to go to lunch at the lodge just a few hundred feet away or we could continue to hike. A few Sisters of Life and a few Knights made the attempt to find the natural border between Slovakia and Poland. A few found it, while most, including myself, weren’t as successful. What they found was a pillar marking which side was Poland and which side was Slovakia. No wall was even needed (looking at you, Donald Trump). That trail in particular was very steep and tiring. The trail going from the parking lot to the lodge was not too treacherous.
Words can hardly explain the beauty that I witnessed today. The pictures just scratch the surface. Seeing them in person is the best experience anyone can have. God is truly an artist, and my favorite masterpiece of His is the Tatra Mountains of Poland.
“Jesus remains among us until the end of the world.”
-Saint Maximillian Kolbe
Post #2, July 21: The Pilgrimage Begins
Since my last post, many things have happened. I have traveled several hundred miles by train to the city of Stamford, CT where I met everyone who will be on the trip. We stayed at a small retreat house owned by the Knights of Columbus and operated by the Sisters of Life. The Sisters of Life take vows similar to Franciscans. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they take a fourth special vow. They promise to protect all life from conception to natural death. The Sisters are absolutely wonderful people! Some of the Sisters are already in Poland awaiting our arrival and will be traveling with us for part of World Youth Day.
As each hour passed waiting for our flight to Berlin, it felt less and less like a dream that I will be traveling to Poland. When we arrived in Connecticut, we had been reminded that this is a pilgrimage. It’s more than a sightseeing trip. We have constantly been in prayer. While in prayer, we are to listen to God’s calling to listen to where he wants us and what he wants us to experience from this trip. We must keep our minds and our hearts open, for we never know when God will have something for us. We’ve been reminded that we will be following in the footsteps of Saint John Paul II, traveling to many place he has been.
After a seven-and-a-half hour flight to Berlin and an hour layover, we eventually made it to Krakow. We had a brief chance to see the city, but only as we drove through it on our way to Wadowice. Wadowice is significant to Poland and this pilgrimage because it is the birthplace of Saint John Paul II. Before seeing the sights, we had our first real taste of Polish food, which was amazing! After lunch, we had the opportunity to explore the small town, the basilica in the town, and JP II’s childhood home. The tour of his house showed his life as a child all the way to his death in 2005.
After Wadowice, we traveled to the town of Oswiecim. This is where we would not only spend the night, but also have the opportunity to tour the Auschwitz Death camps. This has been one of the most powerful moments of the trip thus far. We all learned about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in school. Visiting Auschwitz in person put it into perspective. The massive size of Auschwitz II is unreal. The conditions these people lived in, IF they were lucky and weren’t sent to the gas chambers immediately after they got off the train, were disgusting.
Later that evening, I went on a small Facebook rant about Auschwitz. I said, “The idea that someone could hate others so deeply that they wanted to eliminate them all is almost incomprehensible. Auschwitz is a symbol of what hated can turn into.” I later wrote that we need to “love each other” and not hate each other. In the end, hate doesn’t help anyone. It simply hurts all of us. Hopefully, one day we will all learn to not hate.
“A single act of love makes the soul return to life.”
–Saint Maximillian Kolbe
Post #1, July 18: Introduction to Matt Fraley, the Knights of Columbus and World Youth Day
My name is Matt Fraley. I’m a 20 year-old junior at Saint Francis University majoring in Digital Media and Marketing. I’m also a peer minister for the Campus Ministry Department at SFU. I manage the social media accounts for the SFU Knights and the Campus Ministry Department. In my free time, I am a video editor and DJ. The purpose of this whole blog is to document my trip to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. I will be traveling with 28 college-aged Knights of Columbus from all around North America. I’ll be trying my best to make readers feel as though they are here with us.
Some of you may be wondering, “What is the Knights of Columbus anyway?” The Knights of Columbus is a fraternal service organization founded in 1882 by Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney. The initial purpose of the organization was to support low-income Catholic families. Since then, it has evolved into a fraternal organization that provides benefits for its members and serves their surrounding communities. There are more than 15,000 councils in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Poland and many other countries, some 300 of them located on college campuses.
I joined the Knights of Columbus during the fall semester of my freshman year of college. Like many freshmen, I was searching for a purpose. I was meeting people and trying to fit in somewhere. My first experience with the Knights was at a cook-out that they hosted. I was talking and getting to know tons of people, both Knights and not. The exact person who asked me to join the Knights has escaped my memory, but I remember signing the form to join that evening. I joined because of the great people and the opportunity to serve my community. Since joining, I’ve become the Chancellor of the council (which basically means I’m a hype man for the council and I encourage people to come to events). Along with running the social media accounts for the council, I help lead and assist with many fundraisers and events around the university community.
So what is World Youth Day? And why would it take place in Poland of all places? World Youth Day is an event organized by the Catholic Church for young people. Saint Pope John Paul II, then Pope John Paul II, started World Youth Day in 1985 to bring youth closer to Christ and deepen their faith. Since its beginnings, World Youth Day has been held in locations around the globe, from Rio de Janeiro to Madrid to Toronto. Krakow—where St. John Paul II was bishop before becoming Pope—is expected to see two million pilgrims from all around the world.
This is a special year for World Youth Day. Pope Francis has caught the attention of the world with how accepting and forgiving he is. Back in December, the world watched Pope Francis declare the coming year a “Year of Mercy.” He is inviting all people everywhere to visit the Church and seek mercy. Following Pope Francis’s example, the Knights of Columbus will be hosting a “Mercy Centre” at World Youth Day. The “Mercy Centre” will offer youth the opportunity to learn the teaching of the Church, deepen their faith, and enjoy concerts and talks from many big names from around the world.
I first heard about this opportunity during the Knights of Columbus College Councils Conference in New Haven, CT. My first thought was “this is the opportunity of a lifetime.” Because it is through the Knights of Columbus, some expenses have been partially covered. I am not paying nearly what it would cost if I funded the trip myself. Poland is in my top five list of countries I want to visit in my lifetime. So that’s one country down, four to go. Along with that, this will be my first experience traveling abroad. So why not travel with a fraternity that has welcomed me with open arms to a place where I will be welcoming millions with open arms?
With each post, I’ll leave all of you with a quote to save and reflect on. I hope that reflecting on the quotes will deepen your faith and encourage you to seek God’s mercy.
“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!”
–St. Pope John Paul II