Christian pilgrimages began as a following in the footsteps of Jesus. Today, the term is used to describe a journey to a religious shrine for the purpose of strengthening one's faith. A pilgrim, therefore, is a person who travels to grow in his or her faith, experience the faith, and often, to share one's faith.
When St. John Paul II began World Youth Day in 1985, he asked young people to travel across continents to meet with each other and be strengthened by faith sharing. The international event is held every two to three years and is open to youth and young adults, aged 16-39. After John Paul's death, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis continued to hold World Youth Day and celebrate Mass with the millions who attend.
For some, like Hannah Cline, a pilgrimage is an adventure of new sights, sounds and experiences.
"I have holy purposes - grow in my faith - but this is such an adventure. It's so exciting," said the 16-year-old from Mary Immaculate Parish, East Bethany. "I've never been to a foreign country, so I'm seeking something new, something different."
Cline is an outgoing person who has been praying for more opportunities to share her faith. Those prayers have been answered through joining the diocesan Youth Board and taking this pilgrimage to Krakow, Poland, in July.
"I heard about it and thought, not everybody gets to do this. I was able to go and I thought, what a great way to learn and there is so much history there, not just Catholic history. Poland is such an amazing country, I just thought, how could I turn this down," she said. "I didn't really know that the pope was going to be there, so that wasn't the initial draw for me. I knew my friends would be going, so I knew I get to grow in my faith and I get to get closer with my friends. Is there anything better for a teenager than both of those things?"
Cline is the only one from her parish attending, but one of 13 from her youth group, which is comprised of teens from several parishes in or near Wyoming County. She plans to take a lot of photos and share them with her parish at a post pilgrimage pizza party.
Although called World Youth Day, young adults are welcome and often come both as chaperones and as pilgrims themselves, searching to grow in their faith. The diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry estimates 50 percent of the participants from the diocese are young adults, while only about 20 percent are youth. The rest are adult chaperones.
Lydia Zielinski, 21, from the Wyoming Association of Catholic Youth, will be traveling as a chaperone and also experiencing the event as a pilgrim herself.
"I'm really excited about the fact that I'm going to be around a million and a half other Christians in one spot that share my faith and understand the Catholic faith or they might not understand it, but they share the Catholic faith as I do," she said. "There's that vibrancy, that excitement of having all of us in one spot. It's going to be phenomenal. It's going to be life changing."
Zielinski grew up in a Catholic household. Her father is a deacon, and she helps her mother run the Wyoming youth group, known as WACY, and some young adult retreats.
"I see (my faith life) as a personal relationship with Him," she said. "It's an ongoing thing, definitely not just on Sundays. That's what I'm excited about with this trip too, growing in my faith and that presence of Jesus in my life."
She is where she is now because of her faith. After 18 months in Canandaigua working as a physical therapist assistant, she realized her life is the Buffalo area, but wasn't sure if she should return home.
"I prayed and told God, 'If it is Your will then let me know when the right time is to move back.' Less than a week later He made it possible. Things lined up. An opportunity came up that allowed me to leave my job and not worry about whether I was making the right decision or not," Zielinski said.
She continues to use her faith to guide her as she grows and moves through her still young life.
"I have witnessed my life without Christ in it, and it just feels empty," Zielinski said. "I realized that when I have Jesus in my life, I make a difference in other peoples lives. My character, my personality changes for the better. I feel more whole, and I feel like a better person for who I am when Jesus is in my life, and I know that, especially when I have fallen from the path that He has for me, that is a big thing, I guess."
At 22, Reid Okoniewski has just started his career. He works as a relationship manager for the diocese's Upon This Rock capital campaign. In this job he travels throughout the diocese to explain Bishop Richard J. Malone's vision of the diocese. That's sort of like a reverse pilgrimage; going out to give, rather than to receive.
For him, going to Poland makes up for a lost opportunity to attend WYD Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
"When the diocese said they were trying to get a group of pilgrims to go to Poland, I thought, 'Why not?' It's truly a wonderful experience and I wouldn't miss it for the world," he said, adding that the theme of "Blessed are the Merciful, for They will Receive Mercy" (Mt. 5:7) could not be more appropriate today.
"One thing that stood out to me very clearly was the theme of Mercy," he said. "We need to learn as a society today that not everybody's perfect. We need to be able to show mercy. It's hard today to comprehend really how to show mercy, but what I'm hoping is through this experience in Krakow that I become better as a human being on how to better show mercy, accept mercy and accept forgiveness."
Pilgrims will travel through Krakow to see the Divine Mercy shrine, Auschwitz concentration camp, St. John Paul II's hometown of Wadowice. They will also meet nearly 2 million pilgrims from across the globe, and participate in a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
Okoniewski witnessed Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., during his visit for the World Meeting of Families. After waking up at 3 a.m. and standing in line for six hours, he caught the pope's speech crystal clear on his phone.
The parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Ransomville was startled by the pope's humbleness. "Pray for me. Pray that I can be a great pope. Pray for all those who are being persecuted. Pray for all those who need help." He has saved that speech and listens to it often.
"At times, with my job being so stressful, sometimes if I need a minute, I just go to my phone and play it back and I'll listen to it two or three times. That will bring me back to reality in a way. It really puts everything into perspective," Okoniewski said.
Father David Baker was just a seminarian when he attended WYD Toronto in 2002. Now he will be traveling in the threefold role as minister, chaperone and still a pilgrim. Now, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila, Akron, he signed up over a year ago, while serving as parochial vicar at St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda.
"I have a real heart for youth ministry and this is the biggest gathering of youth on the planet," he said as reason for attending. "Part of it was opportunity. I happened to be at a parish that was sending a large group and were very excited by the thought that one of their priests would come along. Part of it is Poland and the heritage of John Paul II. I have a lot of Polish in my family, so I get to see some local history that is personally meaningful."
He looks back at being in Toronto and remembers contemplating his future as he studied for the priesthood.
"It strengthened my decision to pursue the priesthood in a couple of ways," he said. "We, so often in this world, feel like we're sort of a besieged minority, that the world is standing at our walls and our doors waiting to knock us over. It causes a timidity about the faith, I think. World Youth Day in Toronto, and I think all of them have this effect, you realize how strong and vibrant and young the Church is. You see it at its best. The pilgrims in Toronto transformed that city for a week. We brought a joy and an energy to the city that all kinds of people were noticing. I remember being in the streets and normal metro buses would go by. We'd smile and wave and people would lean out the window and wave to us. There was this real good will that we generated."
Even though he will be older and probably have a greater knowledge of Church history and doctrine than the young disciples, Father Baker doesn't think his experience as a pilgrim will be much different.
"I think the reasons a priest or layperson would go would be the same - having that deeper experience of faith, seeing holy sites, spiritual renewal, maybe looking to confirm some decisions. All those reasons why people go on pilgrimage, I think they transcend those boundaries of vocation," he said.
Like Father Baker, Kathryn Goller, director of the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, is a veteran of two WYDs, both experienced during different periods of her life. She attended Denver in 1993 as a teenager, and then Toronto as a young adult and member of the diocesan staff. Her roles at each event changed the way she participated.
"I had an amazing time in Denver as an 18-year-old, but it's different and deeper as I've matured, my faith's matured," Goller said. "I had different questions. I was at a different point in life. There were certain questions I was struggling with at 18 about what to do with my life. By 27, some of those I figured out along the way. Now I have new ones. I know this World Youth Day will touch me too, personally."
Nearly 200 pilgrims from the Buffalo Diocese will attend World Youth Day July 26-31.