ST. FRANCIS — Catholics from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee joined an estimated 1.6 million Catholics from around the world who gathered in Kraków, Poland, last month for the 14th World Youth Day, July 25-31.

Anna Leitzke enjoys a pierogi, a Polish dumpling, from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. (Submitted photo by Abigail McCallum)

Anna Leitzke enjoys a pierogi, a Polish dumpling, from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. (Submitted photo by Abigail McCallum)

Twenty-one people from Inspirio Youth Ministries joined with 23 people traveling through the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and made the trip together.

The location was especially significant as a tribute to St. John Paul II, founder of World Youth Day – 30 years ago – as Kraków was his home archdiocese.

“The pilgrimage felt like a homecoming for World Youth Day,” said Fr. John Mitchell, associate pastor of Holy Family Catholic Community, Fond du Lac. “You could feel John Paul II’s presence.”

These 40,000 participants marked the largest delegation of Americans ever to attend World Youth Day outside the United States. The Archdiocese of Milwaukeee contingent spent 11 days traveling to various sites, including Auschwitz; the convent of St. Faustina Kowalska; the Cistercian Abbey of Mogita; the Wieliczka Salt Mine; St. Stanislaw Church, Krakow; and Wadowice – the birthplace of St. John Paul II.

“This pilgrimage was a huge undertaking to travel in a group of 44 people,” said Brian Zanin, director of campus ministry at UW-Whitewater, noting they began planning two years ago.

Visiting the various sites produced a wide range of emotions, according to the pilgrims.

Most notably, the visit to Auschwitz, the German concentration camp, allowed them to draw comparisons to the climate of chaos taking place in the world.

“John Paul II’s life was forged with Auschwitz down the road,” said Fr. Mitchell. “At World Youth Day we can experience true solidarity through Christ.”

Margaret Rhody, associate director of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, remembers, “Kneeling before the original image of Divine Mercy in St. Faustina’s convent, seeing Jesus’ eyes full of so much love and so much pain, and praying for the world to know his love and mercy,”

The group of pilgrims also experienced Polish culture firsthand.

“We hiked five miles up a hill to Sucha Polana and had dinner with the local village and danced the national dance of Kraków with over 350 people,” said Rhody. “The way the dance is performed is everybody takes turns dancing with everyone.”

With people from all over the world descending upon Kraków, transportation was a challenge. In order to travel to the sites, pilgrims would walk five to 12 miles.

“It wasn’t just getting from point A to point B,” said Ben Wagner, program coordinator for Inspirio Youth Ministries. “It was about the experience, not the destination.”

Before the pilgrims arrived in Poland, their plane landed in Frankfurt, Germany, only to learn their connecting flight was canceled. With 12 hours to spend, the group attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew and experienced other sites in the city.

“We wanted to make the most of the trip,” said Wagner. “There was never a wasted moment or opportunity.”

Lodging accommodations were also scarce. The 44 pilgrims slept on the classroom floor of a grade school in the town of Myslenice, an hour-long walk to Kraków.

“This was not a vacation or your typical pilgrimage to Rome – there were no hotels,” said Zanin. “Part of having a pilgrim spirit is to deal with adversity and to expect challenges along the way.”

Yet, they were impressed with the hospitable nature of the Poles, said Wagner.

“The citizens of Poland are extraordinary hosts,” he said. “They also liked to offer us four to five apples and carbonated water with every meal; apparently those are two of Poland’s major exports.”

Also attending World Youth Day from Wisconsin were William and Vicki Thorn, members of St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee. Vicki, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and founder of Project Rachel, gave six lectures on the theology of the body.

“It was a powerful sense of unity,” she said. “Seeing all the pilgrims gathered in the Market Square of downtown Kraków was like watching a butterfly move around the city because of all the colors of their clothes and ponchos.”

William, associate professor of journalism and mass media at Marquette University and communications consultant for the Vatican, worked in the World Youth Day’s media center, where he interviewed Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

“All the news stopped when Pope Francis arrived,” said William. “Quite literally, all of the journalists added too many files and overloaded the circuits, causing the media center’s server to crash.”

To complement Pope Francis’s call for a Holy Year of Mercy, this World Youth Day’s theme was “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). At the closing Mass, the pope encouraged the youth to overcome obstacles that arise in their own souls or obstacles they will inevitably encounter in the world and in society.

“The climax of World Youth Day was the final homily Pope Francis gave,” said Wagner. “His message to the youth was get off the couch and be the balm of mercy our world needs.”

The pilgrims said they witnessed the magnitude of the church during that Mass.

“It was a unique opportunity for us to experience the international and universal church,” said Zanin. “We were able to be young together and to be a church together.”

Pope Francis told them the finale of World Youth Day was not the end of their pilgrimage.

“World Youth Day is a microcosm of a larger pilgrimage toward heaven,” said Fr. Mitchell. “Our lives involve a lot of sacrifices to purify our hearts.”

Panama City, Panama, will host the next World Youth Day in 2019.