Destination: Krakow

This summer, during the last week of July, tens of thousands of American young people will descend on the city of Krakow, Poland.

Some will have left the United States as much as a week earlier, spending time first in Italy, Lithuania or other cities in Poland. Others will head straight from the United States to Krakow. All, however, will be in the city by Thursday, July 28, when Pope Francis will greet an estimated 600,000 Catholic pilgrims at the 13th international World Youth Day.

For diocesan young adult coordinators, youth ministers and volunteers, that day will be the culmination of two years of planning — of scouting trips, fundraising, webinars, retreats, meetings, phone calls and seemingly endless amounts of paperwork.

“Preparation started as soon as the last World Youth Day in Rio was over,” said Betsy Palmer, World Youth Day staff assistant at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It never really ends.”

Powerful pilgrimage

What makes the years of work — not to mention the inherent difficulties involved in taking so many young people overseas — worthwhile?

“It’s a life-changing experience,” said Stephen Lenahan, director of events for LifeTeen International. “Most young people are leaving the Church right after confirmation. The more a person attends World Youth Day, though, the more likely they are to remain in the Faith.”

“It’s also a big catalyst for vocations,” he added.

Lenahan, who will help lead a LifeTeen-sponsored World Youth Day Pilgrimage for 250 teens, attended his first World Youth Day in 2002 in Toronto. He was 15 years old at the time and has journeyed to every World Youth Day since, either as a participant or chaperone.

“That’s what kept me Catholic in high school,” he explained. “Anytime I had doubt or fear, anytime I lost hope in myself, the Church or the world, thinking back to those moments at World Youth Day helped.”

Gary Roney, director of youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, thinks the power of World Youth Day lies, in part, in its size.

“Young people like big crowds,” he said. “They find support in numbers. World Youth Day helps them see that they’re not alone, that they’re part of something much bigger than themselves. They get to physically see the universal Church in a way they can’t anywhere else — with people from all over the world, praying in a dozen different languages. There’s great power in that.”

There’s also, he continued, great power in the presence of the pope.

“The pope becomes a real person to them at World Youth Day,” he said.

“Apostolic succession becomes real. Young people see the pope, celebrating the same Mass they see celebrated in their parish every week. It helps them understand that the Church isn’t some niche cult. It’s not just something that their mom makes them do. Regardless of their home life or personal parish experience, at World Youth Day, they see that the Church is alive.”

Pope Benedict at World Youth Day 2008
Pope Benedict XVI holds up a monstrance containing the Eucharist during the World Youth Day vigil in Sydney, Australia, on July 19, 2008. CNS

Working out the details

Giving as many young people as possible access to that experience is no small task. It requires years of planning at every level of the Church, starting with the World Youth Day office in the host country. That office sets the schedule, works with travel agencies and coordinates the logistics of housing, transporting, feeding and communicating with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Safety Concerns
Even before the March 22 terrorist attacks on Brussels that killed more than 30 people, some group leaders and parents voiced fears to coordinators about pilgrim safety during World Youth Day. According to Betsy Palmer of the USCCB’s World Youth Day office, however, American pilgrims have little reason for concern.

In the United States, the USCCB is the main liaison with the host country’s central office. This year, its primary undertaking has been communicating information from Krakow to diocesan and parish leaders, and providing those leaders with resources that will make World Youth Day pilgrimages run smoothly. This included authoring a manual on leading an international pilgrimage and a retreat guide to help leaders spiritually prepare their pilgrims.

At the diocesan and parish level, the preparation gets even more involved.

The Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, which will send more than 100 pilgrims, first sent staff overseas to determine where pilgrims would stay and travel during their time abroad. LifeTeen has been conducting a series of webinars with its chaperones and parish leaders, while the Diocese of Pittsburgh organized workshops on fundraising, the basics of leading a pilgrimage, and the city of Krakow.

The Archdiocese of Chicago, like a growing number of other U.S. dioceses, decided this time around that the new Safe Environment Requirements, put in place by the U.S. bishops, made traveling overseas with high school students prohibitively difficult. After switching the responsibility for World Day Coordination from its Youth Ministry Office to its Young Adult Ministry Office, they launched a new marketing campaign to convince Chicago’s college students and young adults that World Youth Day was for them, too.

“The name didn’t do us any favors,” said Darius Villalobos, director of the Chicago’s Young Adult Ministry Office. “We have a distinctive understanding of the word ‘youth’ here in the U.S. that is different from how most of Europe understands it.”

Then, there was the fundraising.

In Chicago, Villalobos said, they encouraged young adults to reach out to friends and family for help: “to spread the word that they were going on pilgrimage.” The Archdiocese of Chicago also sponsored a raffle, with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward pilgrims’ travel costs.

In Pittsburgh, the fundraising for the Diocese’s 126 pilgrims and 14 seminarians is handled almost exclusively by local parishes, which take on the responsibility of covering their young people’s travel costs. Dinners, raffles, car washes, bingo nights, bake sales, all in support of the pilgrims, have been underway for months (see sidebar).

“Anything that’s legal is being done by the parishes,” Roney joked. He added, “The parishes really do an incredible job. There ends up being very few out-of-pocket expenses for the pilgrims.”

From Pittsburgh to Poland
Taylor Foley, youth minister at St. Richard Parish in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, is helping prepare 14 youth and young adults, and five adult pilgrims, to travel to Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day. Foley told Our Sunday Visitor that fundraising efforts will pay for about 70 percent of the cost of the pilgrimage.
Student fundraising
Youths from St. Richard traveling to Poland pepperoni rolls (left) and meet to eat Polish food (rigjt). Courtesy photos

Spiritual preparation

With the logistical and financial preparations well underway, most dioceses are now gearing up for the spiritual preparations necessary for World Youth Day.

In Chicago, the Young Adult Ministry Office just wrapped up a speaker series on the theme of this year’s World Youth Day: mercy. Now, they’re preparing to host a gathering of all the pilgrims during the week of Pentecost, as well as a send-off Mass immediately prior to World Youth Day.

In early March, the Diocese of Cheyenne hosted a retreat for its pilgrims. In the weeks and months to come, they’ll also send out newsletters and host a video blog to help pilgrims prepare.

“We don’t want to dictate their experience,” said Amy Larsen, assistant director of pastoral ministries for the diocese. “But we do want them to be prepared to encounter the unexpected. There’s so much with World Youth Day that you can’t prepare for. I think the key is to learn to let go and know that God is putting you where you’re supposed to be.”

In May, Pittsburgh will host its own retreat, which will focus on the nature of pilgrimages (as opposed to vacations), as well as the nature of mercy and how to prepare spiritually for an experience like World Youth Day.

“My goal is to help the pilgrims come back from World Youth Day prepared to be missionaries of mercy,” Roney said.

But reaching that goal, he said, hinges on pilgrims realizing that their World Youth Day experience doesn’t begin when they land in Poland.

“World Youth Day is a mountaintop experience. You don’t just show up on the mountaintop, though; you work your way up,” Roney said. “Everything pilgrims do in the years and months leading to Krakow is a progression toward the peak. It’s all part of the hike. The experience is the cherry on top.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.