The town of Alden looked a lot like Poland when St. John the Baptist Parish held a special Polka Mass and dinner dance in January. World Youth Day pilgrims hosted the Polish Heritage Dancers and served up kielbasa and pierogi to raise funds for the summer pilgrimage to Krakow.
The parish gym was filled with people wearing red and white shirts, traditional Polish colors, as Special Delivery provided the soundtrack to the Polka dance. The Polish Heritage Dancers taught the guests traditional Polish dances, such as polonez and mazur, while the pilgrims worked in the kitchen, cooking up some native foods.
Bishop Richard J. Malone, along with the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, will lead the pilgrimage to Krakow, Poland July 22-Aug. 2 to participate in World Youth Day 2016. The pilgrims will meet an expected 3 million Catholics from across the globe who will take part in catechesis sessions and festivals. The highlight will be Mass with Pope Francis in Campus Misericordiae (Field of Mercy).
This is the St. John's first WYD experience since Denver in 1993. So, why take part now?
"I think it just seemed like a great time for all of us," said Christine Garas, 18. "We are all at the end of high school. We are on the brink of adulthood. I think it would be a great experience for all of us."
"It was the spark of mercy," added Jean Czerniak, youth minister at St. John's. "I had just started, I think it was our first youth night. We were talking about World Youth Day and how we could raise money. It was just before Easter. We thought, 'We can do pierogis.' The kids called their parents that night and everybody was on board."
Fifteen teens and six adult chaperones from St. John's will partake in the trip, along with 150 others from across the Diocese of Buffalo.
"It just sounded like a phenomenal experience to not only be able to meet the pope, but be able to take this amazing trip with not only our parish, but everyone in this area and get to meet everyone from around that world who shares the same beliefs that you do," said Emma Retzlaff, 18. "One night we're going to sleep out under the stars and appreciate what we have and what's around us. It seems like there are a lot of thing there to expand on our faith. So all of it sounds like a great experience."
Experiencing Mass celebrated by Pope Francis is the biggest draw for the pilgrims. The second seems to be visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where a reported 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz' existence. Other sites on the itinerary include Wadowice, birthplace of St. John Paul II; the Divine Mercy Shrine, inspired by St. Faustina; and Zakopane, where St. John Paul II often held retreats.
"I want to meet people from Europe and Australia, all over the world. I want to see what they do and I want to be able to get a great experience and pray," said Dominic Sabia, 16.
Brandon Adkins, 23, assistant youth minister at St. John's, will serve as a chaperone for the parish's youthful pilgrims. Although this will be his first WYD experience, he did travel to Poland once before, staying in Krakow and visiting Zakopone and Auschwitz, where Maximilian Kolbe died. "It's a very humbling experience," he said.
Adkins promises that the trip will be a "very cool experience."
Despite being a young adult and a religion teacher, Adkins feel he can still gain something from the experience. "You can always grow in your faith spiritually and learn new things, always," he said.
Czerniak wants to see the excitement of World Youth Day continue long after the event closes. "As a youth minister, I'm hoping that all these young people come back and share that energy here in our parish," Czerniak said.
The goal of the fundraiser was to raise at least half the cost of the pilgrimage. The parish uniting for a common cause has been a side benefit.
"In deciding to go to Poland and get the youth involved, it drew the youth together in a common goal with the fundraising and prayer, then it brought the parish together to putting on events for the parish," said Jay Czerniak, who will attend with his wife, Jean, and son, Anthony. "Some of the best parties of the past 20 years have been last year and, hopefully, this year."