HARTFORD – Archdiocese of Hartford youth and youth ministers returning from World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, say the week-long event exceeded their expectations and filled them with energy, purpose and hope that they can make a difference in today’s world.
Young Catholics drawn from throughout the archdiocese attended the event from July 25-31, uniting with other young Catholics from around the world in catechesis, prayer, the sacraments, fellowship and song.
A peak experience for all those who spoke to the Transcript afterward was being in the presence of Pope Francis at various World Youth Day events, such as at the Way of the Cross, the papal prayer vigil and the closing Mass.
Many groups on the pilgrimage extended their trip to visit historic and sacred sites in Poland, such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mine and underground chapel, Jasna Gora Monastery (which houses the icon of the Black Madonna) and the Shrine of Divine Mercy (place of the Divine Mercy image of Jesus). They also visited other sacred sites associated with Saints Faustina and Pope John Paul II.
Sharon Gagne, youth minister at St. James Parish in Rocky Hill, led 10 people from St. James, St. Christopher Church in East Hartford and Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford. Her team assisted with catechesis sessions for other English-speaking pilgrims from Ghana, Australia, Malaysia and Canada.
“They call us the ‘animation team’ because we’re responsible for getting their energy pumped up by singing with them and doing skits,” Ms. Gagne explained.
The catechesis sessions took place over two days and revolved around praise and worship, skits and music by her team, and talks and Q&A sessions with Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra, Australia, and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles.
As a youth minister, she said her greatest take away from the entire World Youth Day experience came from Pope Francis’ message to the youth at the Saturday night open-air papal prayer vigil at Campus Misericordiae, were 1.6 million people gathered to hear his address.
Some youth brought radios and headphones to hear translations of his talk, but not all, she said. “When I told them the pope said ‘don’t be couch potatoes, get off the couch,’ the kids thought I was making that up. He told them to ‘get off the couch, get out of your house, and make your mark.’”
Amelia Hern, a 17-year-old pilgrim who worships at Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford, said she was thrilled to see Pope Francis several times, especially at the Closing Mass on Sunday morning at Campus Misericordiae.
“He gave a beautiful speech on how much it pains him to see young people giving up on their journey of faith before it’s even really begun,” she said. “He also talked about avoiding distractions in our lives” and “encouraged us to inspire each other and be merciful.”
For Ms. Hern, gathering with pilgrims from around the world for the first time was another joy. “I was able to communicate with people from all over the world without even necessarily speaking the same language,” she said. “Even though we came from completely different backgrounds and locations, we were all connected by our faith and it was a very strong bond.”
On a more somber note, the group’s visit to Auschwitz made an equally indelible impression. “Although it was hard to be in the presence of a place where such evil occurred, it was important to see so we will never forget the significance of what happened,” she said.
Holy Cross Father Joseph Sidera accompanied a group of six young people and six adults from Holy Infant Parish in Orange. “It was beyond extraordinary; larger than life, a wonderful experience, but exhausting,” he said.
One of those adults with the Holy Infant group was Mike Muttitt. He said the high point for him was the catechesis sessions with cardinals, describing the prelates as “educational and inspirational.”
Debbie Sousa, director of youth ministry at St. Stanislaus Parish in Bristol, traveled with a group of 31 pilgrims from her church as well as from St. Casimir and Immaculate Conception parishes in Terryville. Father Marcin Pluciennik and Father Raymond Smialowski also joined the group.
Ms. Sousa said she most enjoyed visiting the Divine Mercy Shrine, where the group saw the original Divine Mercy painting. “The ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ message is really hitting home now,” she said.
Another memorable experience was the six-mile hike to the papal prayer vigil and the kindness of the Polish people along the way. “You see thousands of pilgrims ahead of you,” she said, “and locals gave us fruit and water.”
As for the pope’s message, she recalled, “He said, ‘Let the Gospel be your GPS’ and the kids really related to that.” Cardinal Timothy Dolan also spoke about the need to live one’s faith every day. Ms. Sousa and her group is now working on a slide show of the event to share with their home parishes.
Sebastian Alvarez, age 15, of Immaculate Conception Church in Terryville made his first trek to World Youth Day. He said he enjoyed the prayer vigil with the pope where he was “surrounded by people with the same faith as me.” The Way of the Cross prayer service with the pope at Blonia Park also touched the teen. “It was very moving,” he said.
What will he remember most? “I believe that the message of mercy is one of the best things that I have taken away from World Youth Day,” he said, “and I expect to display it back home.”