As young people we often hear phrases such as ‘you are the future of the church’. This is perhaps to inspire us to grow in faith, grow closer to God, deepen our understanding and maybe seek to be more involved in what the church in the modern world does and is. It’s easy to sit back and think therefore ‘I’m young, I don’t have a voice in the church, I’ll only matter in the future when my voice will be taken seriously’ and too often it’s easy to feel alone in one’s faith, be that in a school environment where many of our friends don’t practice their faith, or at university where we feel like one of a very small number in a huge organisation.
This summer, I was lucky enough, thanks to the extremely generous support of a couple in this parish to have the opportunity to go to Krakow for World Youth Day with the Catholic society from the University of Birmingham where I study. World Youth Day, for those of you that don’t know is an international Catholic youth event held in a different city in the world every three years. It is an event on a massive scale… a feat of organisation if ever there was one. To be completely honest, when I signed up in October last year, I didn’t really have a clue what to expect. I knew the Pope was going to be there so that sounded pretty cool to me! Nearer the time, I began to think more and more about what this event I’d let myself in for really was. My concern about it was that it had the potential to be extremely inward looking, perhaps a show of how fantastic the Catholic church is at organising events with nice graphics and good music. I needn’t have been concerned however. I arrived in Krakow to not only an atmosphere of sheer joy; the city was completely buzzing with energy of young people from every corner of the globe but also to an atmosphere accepting that we do not live in a perfect world. Issues of social justice, war, violence, terrorism, oppression, and persecution were all dealt with with such grace and humility. Clearly there are no simple answers to these issues, but believe me it feels so powerful to stand in a field with 3 million like-minded young people and hear a young woman from Syria ask the questions ‘God, where are you? Why have you forsaken us? Do you even exist? Why won’t you have mercy on us? Are you not the God of love?’ and yet despite her experiences she still stands in front of us firm in her faith in the Lord.
The week of World Youth Day consisted of 5 main big scale events which included an opening mass, a papal welcome, the way of the cross and a walk in pilgrimage to the night prayer vigil leading into the final closing mass. The rest of the time, there were smaller scale catechesis groups all across the city so we could find masses, talks and music in English! For me, the large scale events held the most power, they left me in a feeling of awe. This is also where the worldliness of the church was demonstrated so clearly… there is something quite poignant about the language barriers we came across, although we didn’t necessarily understand the words there remains a shared understanding that comes with our shared faith as a universal church. To be surrounded by oceans of young Catholics on all sides, feeling alone in one’s faith is certainly the last thing to be thinking!
Another extremely powerful moment for me was when we visited the Australian Catechesis centre, I say these were smaller scale groups… this was still a tent with easily a couple of thousand people in. We heard a talk by the Cardinal from Tonga – he spoke with great honesty about mercy (the theme that ran throughout our week in Krakow), the need for mercy in today’s world and about some of the practical ways we can bring being merciful into our lives. The communion hymn in the Mass on this day was One Bread One Body. Singing the line ‘…and we though many throughout the earth’ really struck me in a way that it certainly never has done before. We really were a group of ‘many’ from all over the world sharing in one communion, and it felt such a privilege to be there in that moment sharing in that experience with so many other people.
I couldn’t possibly share all of my experiences with you in a short space of time so I will say the main things I hope take away from my experiences in Krakow.
Firstly, a great sense of pride in being a young catholic in 2016.
Secondly, a huge amount of joy from the unbelievable atmosphere that filled the city of Krakow for the week whilst we were there.
And also, the importance of being an outward looking church. A church with open arms, and most of all, a clear reminder that as young people we are not ‘the future of the church’ We are the church.
I’ll leave you with one of the things Pope Francis said that really stuck with me and my group from Birmingham…
‘Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history, because life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark.’
-Catherine Bridgwood, Leicester