HARTFORD – Young people from the Archdiocese of Hartford are packing their bags for a trip to Krakow, Poland, July 25-31 for what may be one of the most memorable World Youth Day (WYD) gatherings to date.
Already, it appears that a “pope effect” – seeing Pope Francis and being in the home country of Saint John Paul II, who created the gathering of young people – is the one-two punch that will make this 14th WYD historic for many pilgrims.
“I’m stoked,” said Steven DiMotta, who will be going on his fourth WYD trip and accompanying a group of 10 pilgrims as the youth minister for St. Bridget Parish in Manchester.
“Since St. John Paul II started World Youth Day and we’re going to be in his homeland, I just think that’s awesome,” he said “I’m looking forward to seeing where he grew up.”
Among others making the pilgrimage is Father Marcin P. Pluciennik, who will accompany a group from the Roman Catholic Community in Terryville; and Holy Cross Father Joseph Sidera, who is one of 13 pilgrims from Holy Infant Parish in Orange.
“I’m honored to be going,” said Holy Infant parishioner Tim Dowd. “It’s a great opportunity to share my faith with pilgrims from around the world.”
Riley Sullivan, a 14-year-old member of St. Bartholomew Parish in Manchester, will be in Father Pluciennik’s group.
“I am looking forward to the vigil with Pope Francis the most because it sounds amazing to be in the presence of our leader of the Catholic Church for so long,” she said. “What I hope to get out of this experience is to see how strong our church still is, especially around the world.”
Ms. Sullivan admitted to a little anxiety as the departure date looms.
“I am feeling a mixture of happiness and anxiety as the date closes in.” The idea of huge crowd “does not help the nerves, but knowing we are all there for a good reason makes me feel better. Being able to participate in a onceinalifetime opportunity such as this is simply amazing and I am superexcited to immerse myself in everything World Youth Day has to offer,” she said.
Ginamarie Garabedian from St. Christopher Parish in East Hartford, 25, also attended WYD in Madrid and Brazil with her brother, who is 23 and going again this year.
“I’m very excited to go to Poland because my past World Youth Days were such a great experience,” she said.
“I think it’s important that everybody knows how alive and well the Catholic Church is,” Ms. Garabedian said, pointing to the 3.5 million young pilgrims from around the world who turned out for the final Mass with Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
“All the youth I’ve talked to absolutely love Pope Francis,” she added.
The giant youth gathering also strengthens her faith, Ms. Garabedian said, as she meets people from all over the world. “It brings people closer together and closer to God.”
Sharon Gagne, youth minister from St. James Parish, spoke along the same lines. A WYD veteran, she has been to six previous gatherings. This year’s group of 10 young people includes the Garabedian siblings as well as representatives of Holy Family in Enfield and St. Christopher in East Hartford.
“This is an awesome opportunity for young people from around the world to get together for a common reason – their faith,” said Ms. Gagne, who has written a book, The Ultimate Pilgrimage for Catholic Youth, as a guide - for youth and youth ministers to prepare for WYD. The book includes a day-by-day guide and a journal. (A second book on WYD experiences will be out in 2017.)
“It is an opportunity to meet youth from around the world from places that they only read about or saw on TV” and “share in their cultures, and life styles,” she continued.
She reflected that she especially loves the Saturday night vigil and overnight pilgrimage as pilgrims walk and interact with each only along the journey.
“These are life experiences that really have an impact on young people,” Ms. Gagne said.
Joining the Archdiocese of Hartford pilgrims will be groups from the Diocese of Norwich and 220 pilgrims from the Diocese of Bridgeport, who will travel with Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, World Youth Day liaison for the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Many of the pilgrims plan to visit Auschwitz, the Wieliczka salt mine and its underground chapel, the Czestochowa Monastery, the birthplace of Saint John Paul II, and the Divine Mercy Shine, among other sites.
Drawing on this year’s theme, Blessed Are the Merciful, organizers are anticipating some 30,000 people to attend WYD 2016 from the United States with overall attendance projected at 2.5 million pilgrims.
The American delegation is the largest number ever to travel to such a gathering outside of North America. Only WYD events in Denver (1993) and Toronto (2002) drew a larger American presence.
The pilgrimage of young people from countries around the world offers opportunities for catechesis, prayer, sacraments, song and fellowship. The event culminates with a prayer vigil and Mass with Pope Francis.
Instituted by Pope St. John Paul II in 1985, the international gatherings are held every two to three years and have drawn crowds of up to 5 million. The location and dates for the next WYD will be announced at the concluding Mass.