The Diocese of Buffalo held its first meeting of World Youth Day 2016 pilgrims on Oct. 26. About 60 people met at St. John Paul II Parish in Lake View to hear speakers talk about what WYD has meant to them.
The trip to Krakow, Poland, is still over a year and half away, but physical, mental and spiritual preparation cannot start too early. It was emphasized that World Youth Day is a pilgrimage or spiritual journey, not a vacation.
"A pilgrimage, you have to get ready your heart, not just pack your suitcase, but prepare spiritually through prayer for that experience," said Michael Slish, program coordinator for the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. "In a pilgrimage, you don't just make memories; you do, but also it's a sacrifice. It's a commitment that's going to change you and cause you to grow, and hopefully return as a different person."
Pope Francis has chosen the Beatitudes as the theme for World Youth Days in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Father David D. Baker, parochial vicar of St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, spoke at the gathering on this year's theme, "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 5:3). Other Beatitudes are being used in the local WYDs leading up to the international event in 2016.
"How we can cultivate that virtue now in our lives?" Father Baker asked in his talk. "I guess I could say, we're just a small part of the solution, but together we are something really great. I think that is poverty of spirit, realizing my own contribution is small, but that I am a part of something really massive and life-changing."
Father Baker attended WYD 2002 in Toronto as a seminarian. He plans to make the pilgrimage to Krakow to explore his Polish roots and to walk in the footsteps of St. John Paul II, the founder of World Youth Day, who has been an inspiration to Father Baker.
"I'm really so glad we have (WYD) because the young people who value their faith often feel that they are alone. All the media they watch has no use for the faith. A lot of their friends might still be going to church, but really aren't into it and are going to drop out as soon as they make their confirmation," Father Baker said. "I think a devout young person feels very isolated in our culture and this gives them that feeling of solidarity when they are surrounded by that huge crowd of people chanting the pope's name and lifting up Jesus. It can really be the difference between someone holding on to the faith or being swept away."
He can still recall being in Toronto and feeling a contagious joy from smiling and waving at strangers they passed on the streets.
"Looking around at one of the big events and I realized that I was seeing the Book of Revelations happen around me, that passage where an uncountable multitude from every race and language and tongue on earth gathers around the throne of the Lamb. That was happening. So it was like literally heaven on earth."
Father Baker issued the World Youth Day Challenge to help the pilgrims prepare for the trip. The teens are asked to do daily intentions, such as Keep holy Sabbath Sunday; honor our Mother on Marian Monday; perform intentional acts of kindness for Tender Tuesday; spend time with Scripture on Word Wednesday; on Thoughtful Thursdays they should pray for someone; Faithful Fridays are for wearing an outward sign of faith; and on Service Saturday, as the name implies, serve in their community. Teens are asked to post a photo or description of that intention on Twitter and Instagram under the hashtag #WYDChallenge.
"It's a way for the pilgrims to prepare their hearts," he said. "We're still two years out from this event. We want to get the kids together so they can start meeting each other, but what do we do spiritually at this point? We decided it was preparation of the heart."
People from parishes who will not travel to Poland, can still be part of the WYD experience by supporting pilgrims, either financially or spiritually. Fundraising events are open to all and advertised throughout the diocese, so everybody can show their support. Annunciation Parish in Elma will hold a black light volleyball game as a fundraiser Dec. 28 at 6 p.m.; St. John the Baptist Parish in Alden plans a polka Mass and Polish dinner on Jan. 24, 2015.
The next diocesan event will be held Aug. 1-2, 2015, at Camp Turner to mark one year before the event. It will give the pilgrims a chance to sleep under the stars, which they will do following the Saturday night vigil Mass in Krakow.
The diocese is planning excursions to Czestochowa, Auschwitz, and the mountains of Zakopane, to precede the World Youth Day catechesis session and Masses held July 25-Aug. 1, 2016. A few spots are still open to travel with the diocesan group. Anyone interested in going may contact the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at 716-847-8789. Applications will be taken on a first come, first serve basis.
Slish said the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry will keep a waiting list, "because over two years, life happens."