World Youth Day Comes Home


Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Today Pope Francis offered a welcome to young adult pilgrims gathered for World Youth Day (WYD) in Kraków – the city that is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Poland, and the place where Saint John Paul II was a student, priest and archbishop.

In a certain sense, this is something of a homecoming. It was in Kraków that the concept of WYD began in the heart of the future pope, when as a young parish priest he would gather with small groups of young people for prayer, discussion and recreational trips. Those encounters deepened their faith and his faith, and it is no wonder that once he became pope in 1978, his pastoral visits to countries around the world almost always included a special gathering with young adults and youth.

Encouraged by the vibrancy of the young people, Pope John Paul II launched World Youth Day. Following a large gathering in Rome in 1986, the pilgrimage then moved to South America the next year, where an estimated one million young people from around the world gathered with the Successor of Peter in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then another million young people journeyed along the route of the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain for WYD 1989.

This saintly pastor returned home to Poland for WYD 1991 in Czestochowa, the site of the famous Marian shrine to the Black Madonna, Our Lady Queen of Poland, patroness of that country. Throughout his life and ministry, John Paul looked to Mary as a model of trusting in God’s will and of bringing Jesus to the world, as he encouraged young people to do. The pope was joined by an estimated 1.6 million pilgrims, some of whom walked across the country, including thousands from the former Soviet Union, who experienced along with their Holy Father a new kind of freedom found in following Christ.

Denver was the site for WYD 1993, when an estimated 500,000 young adult and teen pilgrims from around the world joined Pope John Paul for a festival of faith that had the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. Again, he encouraged the enthusiastic crowd who chanted his name to bring Christ’s love back to their homes, schools, workplaces and communities. Blessed to be present there with a group of young pilgrims from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I was then serving as bishop, I will never forget that electric experience of young people’s faith.

World Youth Day came to Asia in 1995, as an estimated crowd of five million young people joined Pope John Paul in Manila, the Philippines. This is believed to be one of the largest crowds in human history, a sign of the deep faith of that predominantly Catholic nation.

Two years later, Paris – the “City of Light” – shone with Christ’s light, radiating from 1.6 million young people who had come for WYD 1997. A highlight of the Great Jubilee Year 2000 unfolded as two million young pilgrims from around the world descended on Rome for World Youth Day, celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

Saint John Paul II presided at World Youth Day for the last time in Toronto, Canada, in 2002. “You are the men and women of tomorrow. The future is in your hearts and in your hands,” the visibly frail pontiff told the 800,000 young people assembled there.

A few months after he became pope, Benedict XVI presided at WYD 2005 in Cologne, Germany. At that joyful homecoming to the land of his birth, 1.2 million young people joined him in prayer, teaching and the sacraments.

Sydney, Australia hosted WYD 2008, which Pope Benedict celebrated with 400,000 enthusiastic pilgrims. That beloved pontiff led his last World Youth Day in 2011 in Madrid, Spain, where he was joined by an joyous crowd of up to two million young people.

Pope Francis came home to South America to preside at WYD 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where an estimated three million young people joined him for the closing Mass at Copacabana Beach. As he has throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father encouraged them with the words, “Go, do not be afraid, and serve,” adding, “Dear young friends, Jesus Christ is counting on you! The Church is counting on you! The pope is counting on you!”

Now this year, World Youth Day comes full circle. WYD Kraków 2016 comes home to the city that shaped the gathering’s patron, Saint John Paul II, and the city where now Pope Francis will encourage the world’s young people to let their hearts and their world be transformed by Christ’s love.