KRAKOW, Poland — Early in the morning of Saturday, July 30, the seventh early morning of the week, nearly 150 pilgrims from the Diocese of Buffalo walked on foot to see Pope Francis.
The pilgrims, who had left Buffalo for Krakow, Poland, on July 22 for World Youth Day, walked nearly nine miles from their hotel to what has been dubbed Campus Misericordiae, or the Field of Mercy, where Pope Francis would hold a vigil that night and a Mass the following morning for an expected 2 million pilgrims from across the world. The theme of WYD 2016 is "Blessed are the Merciful: They will have mercy shown to them (Mt. 5:7)."
Along the way, the Buffalo crew high-fived new friends from foreign lands, took a couple breaks to rest their feet, and drank plenty of water. Although the weather, which had been humid in the low 80s all week, was cooler, walking all those steps can work up a sweat.
To give an impression of how big the Field of Mercy is, one-third of the walk came after crossing the front gate.
Right at 7 p.m. Pope Francis took to the altar, greeted by dancers. The pilgrim groups, each assigned to a small section of the park, listened on radios, which broadcast the speech in different languages.
"It is good to be here with you at this prayer vigil," Pope Francis opened. "We have come from different parts of the world, different continents, countries, languages, cultures and peoples. Some of us are sons and daughters of nations that may be at 'peace,' free of war and conflict, where most of the terrible things occurring in our world are simply a story on the evening news. But think about it. For us, here today, coming from different parts of the world, the suffering and the wars that many young people experience are no longer anonymous, something we read about in the papers. They have a name, they have a face, they have a story, they are close at hand."
That had to resonate with the Buffalo crew, who spent an afternoon is the concentration camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkeneu, seeing where 1.1 million prisoners died, just days before.
"Some situations seem distant until in some way we touch them. We don't appreciate them on the screen of a cell phone or a computer. But when we come into contact with life, with people's lives not just images on a screen, something powerful happens. We feel the need to get involved."
Pilgrims over the past week have felt that need to make human contact with others from distant lands, high-fiving and trading pins. It may seem simple and unremarkable, but the teens and young adults do have a desire to meet other people and learn about their home countries and faith traditions.
Mentioning the war in Syria, the pope said he would not denounce or start a fight with any one or nation, "We have no desire to conquer hatred with more hatred, violence with more violence, terror with more terror. We are here today because the Lord has called us together."
In closing, the pope told those present to have the courage to "teach us that it is easier to build bridges not walls.
"Do you know the first bridge that has to be built? It is a bridge that we can build here and now by reaching out and taking each other's hand. This is a great bridge of brotherhood," he said.
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis prayed before the relics of St. Faustina and heard confessions at the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow. He also had lunch with 12 youth from across the world.
Pilgrims will sleep under the stars and witness Pope Francis celebrate Sunday Mass at 10 a.m. Krakow time.