World Youth Day pilgrims explored their personal past, present and future at a daylong retreat on Divine Mercy Sunday. "Mercy Awakens" paid homage to the theme of WYD 2016, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
Sixty-six teenagers, young adults and youth ministers came to the Church of Annunciation in Elma on April 3 to prepare themselves for World Youth Day, the international gathering of Catholics started by St. John Paul II in 1986. They had chances to get to know one another, time for reflection and the opportunity for reconciliation. The day ended with the pilgrims joining Annunciation parishioners for the regular 5 p.m. Mass.
Throughout the day, a series of craft activities helped the pilgrims look into themselves and find where they are in their own lives. One activity involved writing the names of influences and groups they have participated in, then making a constellation by placing those circles near a circle of themselves in relation the influence those groups had on their lives. Later in the day, attendees drew a line from their birth dates to their presumed death dates marked with the joys, sorrows and times when God was most in their lives. Some pilgrims wrote out a statement about themselves beginning with "I am" to be put into a photomosaic of the WYD logo.
As a look into the future, pilgrims wrote letters to themselves, listing their hopes and prayers for their WYD experience in Krakow, Poland this July. The letters will be mailed out after they return home.
At 3 p.m., Divine Mercy Hour, they prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet as a group. The school gym was turned into a makeshift chapel for the sacrament of reconciliation and quiet time.
St. John Paul II started World Youth Day because of his concern for young people. "All young people must feel the care that the Church has for them. Therefore, the whole Church, in union with the successor of Peter, must be more and more engaged at a global level in caring for youth, in responding to their anxieties and concerns and to their receptiveness and hopes. ... Their life is valuable to the Church," the pope told his Roman Curia more than 30 years ago.
Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have continued the tradition of meeting with young people every few years in a new location to celebrate Mass with them. Bishops and cardinals from across the globe also participate in leading catechesis sessions.
Traveling to foreign countries and meeting new people are big draws to those who participate in WYD. Often, pilgrims say the experience helps them realize how large the Catholic Church is, and helps them feel they are not alone.
"I am hoping to experience the prayer in an international way," said Joshua Fontaine, 17, from Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Darien Center. "We experience things over here in America and everything is in English, but it would be kind of cool in a lot of different languages. There's going to be dozens of different languages over there spoken, which would be really neat."
Matthew Liebler, 17, from St. Mary Parish, East Arcade, has participated in diocesan events such as the Christian Leadership Institute and Young Christians at Work. He likes spending time with other Catholics who share his views.
"I find in settings with a lot of other Catholics, especially when they are my own age, I find it easier to live my faith, easier to enjoy it. Basically, it's easier to live it. I'm hoping by going (to WYD) that it will be easier to perform the acts of the Catholic faith," he said.
Is it possible to remain true to Catholic values and still fit into the secular world?
"I try my best. Sometimes it is hard to live out your faith. I don't always want to be judged. Sometimes I feel if I live my faith, people might judge me in certain ways. I do try my best to live out my faith," he said.
WYD has become a family tradition of sorts for Abraham Baker. Two of his older siblings have attended past gatherings in Denver, Toronto and Cologne, Germany.
"I figured it's a once, twice in a lifetime opportunity. Sure it comes every three years, but you're not going to be able to go every year," the 16-year-old said. "This is the summer before I go away to college, so I figured I'd get it in while I can."
He has seen how the experience has affected his older siblings.
"It was definitely a big event for my sister when she went to Germany. She has a whole photo album of pictures she took. I think it's more impactful for me that my brother talked about it because he's not super faith-based, but he still thought it was a very awesome experience. It's reassuring to know that it's a touching experience even if you're not hardcore Catholic already going in," Baker said.
Despite being called World Youth Day, the event lasts a week and welcomes all people. Some young adults will attend as youth minsters and chaperones. Others will come as pilgrims intent on learning about their faith.
"It's been something I've wanted to do for many years, and I decided, hey, it's time to go. I'm not getting any younger, and it was time to reconnect with my faith a little more," said Pamela Ehrke, 29, from St. Leo the Great in Amherst.
It was both the time and the location that drew her in this year. Krakow, the site of WYD 2016, is the birthplace of St. John Paul II. Although not Polish herself, she thinks it would be a good way to connect with the heritage of Buffalo. In the busy life of a young adult, sometimes religion can be the first to be ignored. Ehrke hopes to reverse this through the pilgrimage.
"Reconnecting with my faith. That's the most important thing for me. I work two jobs and it's very hard for me to go to church or be involved. In many ways I feel disconnected by not being involved. So, this is a way for me to spiritually reconnect with the Church."