A week ago I was exhausted to a degree I never knew my body could handle.
A week ago I was soaked to the core having been caught in a down-pouring of rain unlike any I had ever seen. A week ago my feet pulsed with every step I took. A week ago my shoulders felt as if I had carried the weight of the world for days on end. A week ago I was so thirsty I felt my tongue was as rough as sand paper. A week ago my back ached, my skin was 10 shades darker than it had been a few days prior, my body reeked, my eyes drooped and my hair looked a straight-up mess. A week ago I was on the edge of my physical, emotional, and spiritual capabilities. A week ago I was happier than I had been in a really long time.
A week ago I had just experienced the end of World Youth Day 2016.
The vigil and morning Mass with the Pope are iconic events of every World Youth Day. All WYD pilgrims trek out to a designated campsite to spend the night under the stars awaiting Mass with the Holy Father the following morning. The Catholic international youth conference culminates with this epic finale. The energy and sheer joy of the week builds up to the final events everyone looks forward to–at least everyone thinks they look forward to them until they have to brave the heat and the crowds….
The vigil begins with a 9 mile hike to the field outside the city, equipped to handle 2 million people. Our journey began as every Catholic endeavor should, with the Eucharist. After celebrating Mass with Bishop Kevin Rhodes we set out on the hike to Campus Misericordiae.
After hours of trekking along in the hot scorching sun alongside millions of other pilgrims from around the world, we finally made it to our campsite. That night Pope Francis spoke to the young Church exhorting them to live out the Faith courageously. Words can’t describe the energy the Holy Father sent flying through the crowd or the magnanimity of the moment when he asked 2 million people to hold a moment of silent prayer and just that ensued– a total, deep, prayerful silence.
Two million young people united in prayer. Two million hearts turned towards the Lord. Two million souls reaching for Heaven, hoping for peace.
Pictures from that night will never do the moment justice. Looking out into the sea of candles lit by a people who’s hearts are on fire for Christ is something you must witness to truly grasp.
The night of the vigil is one that knows no sleep for many pilgrims. While some pilgrims lay their heads to rest on mats and inflatable bedding, many go out to meet their brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world. Everywhere you walk people encounter each other in Christ. The beating of drums can be heard in every corner of the camp. Guitars strum and voices praise the Lord in every language known to mankind.
To put it simply, it’s an all-night, huge, international, Catholic party. It’s pretty amazing.
The following morning is one of continued rejoicing. Mass with 2 million people and the Vicar of Christ is out of this world. Despite the unbearable sun, the inevitable exhaustion that has set in by now, and the discomfort that comes with a lack of showers (we won’t even speak of the port-a-potty situation), people manage to keep the joy of the Gospel alive.
Once the Mass is over, the pilgrimage has hardly come to an end. Two million people still have to make it out of the camp and back home, wherever that may be. Nine miles had never seemed so far to me before. The small group of us that walked back together prayed the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet to help pass the time and to give us the strength we needed to move forward.
It took us a while to emerge from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds but once we had made it through we were beyond ready to find shelter back at our hotel. Yet, Jesus had different plans. On our way back we stumbled upon a beautiful church. Despite the exhaustion that threatened to overtake our bodies, four of us decided to stop for a moment and explore this beautiful Polish church.
As we walked into the church my body screamed at me, demanding rest. All I wanted was a shower and a chance to finally put my feet up. And it was then that St. Augustine’s words came to mind: “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in You.” As I walked around and took in the beauty of this church I couldn’t help but feel refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to take on the final steps of our journey. I was reminded that no matter what Jesus asks, no matter where He leads, everything works out if we remain in His house. He takes care of us. He always gives us the rest our hearts long for.
Little did I know the last leg of our walk back would be marked by a remarkable rain, the kind that’s accompanied by hail and comes down so hard you can’t see more than 5 feet ahead of you. Good one Jesus.
And yet, despite all of the difficulties that inevitably come with a pilgrimage like WYD, it was well worth it.
Now that a week has passed and my great World Youth Day adventure has come and gone, I am still trying to process the events of the pilgrimage. I feel that, as was the case with the last WYD I attended, I will be unpacking WYD 2016 for years to come and I’m OK with that. World Youth Day is a precious gift to receive and I am more than happy to unwrap it for many years.
I leave you with one of the hymns we sang at Mass today. World Youth Day officially ended a week ago and yet even today when I’m halfway around the world again I am reminded of the lessons learned there. It only goes to show World Youth Day has only just begun.
Jesus, Ever-Flowing Fountain
Jesus, ever-flowing fountain, give us water from your well. In the gracious gift you offer, there is joy no tongue can tell.
Come to me, all pilgrims thirsty, drink the water I will give. If you knew what gift I offer, you would come to me and live.
Come to me, all travelers weary, come that I may give you rest. Drink the cup of life I offer, at this table be my guest.