KRAKOW, POLAND - The Tauron Arena in Krakow, Poland, hosted cardinals, singers, theologians and pilgrims as it became Mercy Center, a main site for World Youth Day 2016.
On Wednesday, July 27, the first full day of the weeklong Catholic event, the arena welcomed pilgrims to hear catechesis sessions and a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston.
For the most part, pilgrims were free to do as they wanted while at the arena, often splintering from large parish groups into buddy groups of two or three people. Some went to confession, others to adoration. Some big names in Catholicism hosted breakout sessions. Abstinence speaker Jason Evert and his wife, Crystalina, spoke about finding one's soulmate. Author George Weigel spoke St. John Paul II. Other topics included understanding Auschwitz, religious freedom and the persecuted Church in the Middle East. St. Faustina Kowalska, the apostle of Divine Mercy was named Saint of the Day. Pop of exhibits on Auschwitz, St. John Paul II and Divine Mercy lined the walkways of the arena.
A panel on religious liberty included Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Kathryn Jean Lopez and Weigel. It closed with Audrey Assad, the daughter of a Syrian refugee, sending a song and a prayer to Father Jacques Hamel, and 86-year-old priest killed by ISIS terrorists while celebrating Mass in France the day before.
"There was a bishop there from Iraq who was, I felt, more or less pleading for our prayers and our help and our support," said Betsy Amico, 32, from Queen of Heaven Parish in West Seneca. "You don't want to clap for what he's saying, but you want to show support. My heart was really touched by his honesty about what was going on."
"You can see it on the news and easily separate yourself from it just because it is not happening immediately in your space," added Caitlin Sullivan, 25, also from Queen of Heaven. "But knowing that that's it's going on today, (that) people are dying for their faith. In a weird way, it kind of strengthens my faith because someone is willing to die today for their faith."
At 4 p.m., the video monitor that cast the World Youth Day logo displayed Pope Francis plane touching down on Polish soil. The pope landed near Krakow, at Belice Airport. His first visit will be with Poland's president and bishops. His official WYD welcoming is scheduled for Thursday, July 28, in Blonia Park.
The evening ended with XLT, a praise and worship event with Christian singer Matt Maher.
"It was great," said Carrie Young, 23, also from Queen of Heaven. "Matt Maher started it off. He was able to get everyone settled into this really prayerful state. Everybody was just excited for Jesus. It was awesome."
Some of the best talks didn't happen on stage. Father David Baker, pastor of St. Teresa Parish in Alden, traveled with his former parish of St. Amelia's in Tonawanda. He talked with some of the teens and young adults in his group about vocations, the role of a priest and the difference between nuns and religious sisters.
A reported 40,000 Americans are attending World Youth Day this year. This makes the largest number of Americans in Poland ever at one time, said Archbishop Lori.