Members of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry made a trip to Poland to prepare for World Youth Day 2016 in Kraków.
Kathryn M. Goller, director, and program coordinator Michael Slish, visited Kraków, Częstochowa, Warsaw and Wadowice, as well as the Auschwitz concentration camp and Niepokalanów, the monastery of St. Maximilian Kolbe, during their April 10-19 expedition.
"It was a site inspection to help us prepare for what we will see at World Youth Day," Goller said. "Some of it is to prepare spiritually, to help us understand more about the country of Poland so we can help our pilgrims to spiritually prepare. A good amount of it is also practical preparations, see the cities, see the hotel, experience the international flights and airports and all of the practical things that our pilgrims will need to do and understand."
They stayed in the same southern Kraków hotel the Buffalo pilgrims will use July 22-Aug. 2, 2016. There they met with the World Youth Day planning committee. The hotel sits walking distance from the Divine Mercy Shrine, which holds the original Divine Mercy icon based on a description by St. Faustina, and the John Paul II Center, built on the grounds of a chemical factory where the former pope worked as a young adult layperson.
Plans call for the Buffalo pilgrims to visit Częstochowa, Niepokalanów, Wadowice and Auschwitz on the Sunday and Monday before the official World Youth Day welcome on July 27. Goller and Slish have said that details still need to be finalized.
"We really hope we will be able to work in a visit to Niepokalanów, which is Maximilian Kolbe's monastery, so people can start to understand who he was," Goller said. "Some people really know the story of Maximilian Kolbe. Many don't. They don't really know the history behind the man and don't know how important he was as a leading Polish Catholic figure priest, prior to his arrest."
As a Franciscan friar, Kolbe founded a publishing group and printed devotional periodicals. The Nazis targeted him for his work in spreading the Catholic message. While in Auschwitz, he offered to take the place of a prisoner who was to be executed.
Goller and Slish heard stories that should be familiar to Buffalonians, but with more depth and detail, "because it's closer to the hearts of the people telling the story," said Slish. "It was more personal. All the saints that we learned about were more able to come alive, because for the Polish people, they were alive."
Pilgrims will be able to walk in the footsteps of St. John Paul II, the founder of WYD in his birthplace of Wadowice. St. John Paul and St. Faustina serve as the patron saints of the event.
"(We) learned a little bit about how the times in which he lived during the war and during communism impacted him and formed him and inspired his papacy and the causes which he held near and dear to his heart," said Goller about her tour through Wadowice.
She also read testimonies from the youth who had worked with St. John Paul.
"To see that he took a personal interest in teens and youth in passing on that faith helped bring that picture of World Youth Day together," she said.
With 2 million people expected for the event, pilgrims may not be able to get as close to items such as icon of the Black Madonna, as Goller and Slish did, but they hope to impart some of the history and meaning behind each of these Catholic artifacts.
"Poland's history is full of such suffering, and yet, their faith is so strong," Goller said. "This idea, particularly to Our Lady of Częstochowa, of turning to Mary, doesn't make all the suffering go away, but it certainly gives them the feeling that they have such a close ally and someone who will help them persevere through suffering."
The opening Mass, papal welcome and Stations of the Cross will take place at Błonia Park. The Saturday Vigil Mass and Sunday's closing ceremonies will take place at Campus Misericordiae (Field of Mercy). The theme for the event is "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
"The whole thrust of this World Youth Day is all about mercy," said Goller.
Pilgrims should be prepared to walk 10 miles a day. The pilgrimage to Field of Mercy is expected to take all day. Pilgrims might want to begin a walking regimen now.
"Kraków is a wonderful location for World Youth Day for lots of reasons," said Goller. "One of the challenges of the city is that it is very small. It's a very old world city, very provincial. So their infrastructure really can't handle 2 or 2 and half million trying to reach the same location at the same time."