KRAKOW — While today marked the third official day of the events of World Youth Day, for many pilgrims it felt like the start as Pope Francis made his initial visit to the crowds at Krakow’s Blonia Park this evening. Despite rain and dark skies, more than half a million attendees welcomed the pope in the event’s official opening ceremony.
“Mercy always has a youthful face,” he said. “Because a merciful heart is motivated to move beyond its comfort zone. A merciful heart can go out and meet others; it is ready to embrace everyone.”
If mercy has a youthful face, it’s also an impressive sight.
Earlier today almost 20,000 pilgrims from the United States, Canada and Australia poured into the Mercy Centre at Tauron Arena, Poland’s largest indoor venue that is serving as the English-speaking pilgrim site this week. Usually the arena plays host to the likes of Justin Bieber and Disney On Ice. Today, however, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, took center stage as catechist and main celebrant of the Mass. Dubbed by some as the “Asian Francis,” Cardinal Tagle electrified the crowds with his energy and accessibility — and with his passion as he reflected on the parable of the Prodigal Son.
At a press conference following the morning sessions, the cardinal spoke — often in tears — about his own experience of exercising the acts of mercy — and learning it firsthand from others. He spoke of a visit to a refugee camp in Greece where a young Syrian boy had been separated from his parents who sent him there for safety despite the fact that they were unable to join him. Their sacrifice for the son they loved — to send him ahead in hopes of a new and better life, not knowing whether they would one day be reunited — is an modern day parable that parallels the unconditional, unending love of our heavenly Father, always looking out for his children. For Tagle, like Francis, we can’t just preach a message of mercy. It begins with an actual encounter of the human person.
Back at the opening ceremony this evening, Pope Francis commended the young people present for their witness to a culture of encounter.
“Nothing is more beautiful than seeing the enthusiasm, dedication, zeal and energy with which so many young people live their lives,” he said. “When Jesus touches a young person’s heart, he or she becomes capable of truly great things.”
He then went on the lament the young people that were wasting the best years of their life on futile projects rather than giving themselves to cheap frills and dark paths. While the days of World Youth Day began under the shadows of the martyrdom of gruesome murder of the French priest, looking out on the masses of young people as they waved the flags of the 187 countries present here in Poland, one could begin to see those clouds beginning to lift.
Reflecting on the grim state of the world, the pope asked: “You tell me, can things change?” The crowd roared in response. And with that he had his answer. Those listening to the words preached here these days — whether in person or at home — have theirs, as well.
Christopher White is Director of Catholic Voices USA.