Bishop Dennis Sullivan recently attended the World Youth Day festivities in Poland, along with diocesan pilgrims and seminarians. The following are his reflections from his journey.
After the eight-hour flight from New York to Warsaw our first stop was in the town of Mlodzieszm at the parish of my friend Father Darius Kuzminski. As we departed our bus the parish youth choir greeted us singing in English! Parishioners were lined up with their cars to take all 52 of us to their homes to freshen up from our overnight journey. Language was not an issue as the hospitality of the parishioners communicated “welcome.” Fresh towels and showers were available and of course food and drink. We learned that you cannot say no to the hospitality of the Polish people.
In the early afternoon our hosts returned the pilgrims to the parish where a barbecue was on the grills; fresh salads, pierogis of every type, chicken, sausages, kielbasa; and varieties of home baked breads, desserts, cakes, cookies, and plenty of drinks were served. The host families joined us for lunch.
The celebration of Mass followed. The sermon was bilingual. Me in English and Father Darius translating and again the youth choir accompanying with their English Praise and Worship repertoire! Many of us joined the singing. I could not help but think as I looked out from the Altar that the parishioners in Mlodzieszm could have been parishioners in any parish in our diocese who also would offer hospitality and welcome to visitors. We were gathered at One table, the Table of the Lord, as a people of One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism and One Church. It was such a joyful and spiritual way to begin our pilgrimage by experiencing the welcoming culture of the Polish people and joining our sisters and brothers in Christ in prayer. Our young pilgrims experienced the universality of our Catholic Church.
In the latter afternoon when the bus departed for Warsaw, I was standing next to a family who had hosted one of our seminarians. The family has a small boy and the child was weeping in his mother’s arms because his “new friend” was leaving.
Myself and Father Michael Romano went with Father Darius to visit the Bishop of the diocese of Wovitch, His Excellency Andrew Biskulpi who graciously received us into his residence and immediately insisted that we enjoy some food and drink. The diocese of Wovitch was hosting 7,000 Italian pilgrims who were camping out with families. The bishop was preparing to greet the pilgrims in the town square but he made time for us.
That evening we visited Niepokalonow, the monastery established by Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a community of about 100 Franciscan monks. One of the monks gave us a tour which ended in the bedroom of Saint Maximilian in which he was arrested by the Nazis. There we prayed for courage to make decisions; to discern Christ’s will for us. At Auschwitz Saint Maximilian was starved to death after volunteering to take the place of a fellow prisoner. A sacrifice of himself in imitation of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.
The next day as we walked through the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau surrounded by the electric barbed wire, gas chambers, crematoria, gallows for public hangings, the bunkers of the victims of the Holocaust, there was hardly a murmur from our group. One million one hundred thousand, mostly Jews but also Gypsies, Catholic Priests and Nuns, were victims of one of the worst evils in modern history. The reaction of our group was silence in the face of such hatred and incomprehensible madness but also resolve that NEVER AGAIN should this happen in the world. I saw the expressions of horror on the faces of our young pilgrims after our 5-mile trek through the concentration camps. May they be messengers of peace in our world and never allow themselves to be infected with the venom of hatred for others.
That afternoon we joined 3,000 American pilgrims at the Shrine of Divine Mercy where Sister Faustina’s revelations of the Mercy of the Lord Jesus took place and where she is buried. Saint Faustina taught that the mercy of Jesus Christ pours God’s divine life into us. We were there for the Hour of Mercy, 3 p.m. “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” As those prayerful petitions were repeated I could not help but think on Auschwitz and Birkenau over which an ocean of mercy was finally poured out by the liberators of the camps in 1945, young American soldiers, many of them the age of our seminarians. God bless and give eternal rest to the greatest generation.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., Archbishop of Boston, was the main celebrant of the Mass at the Divine Mercy Shrine. He reminded us that our world in which murder, hatred, prejudice, war and violence continue needs messengers of the Divine Mercy. Hopefully, they were born at World Youth Day 2016.
Central to the World Youth Day experience are the three days of catechesis. Days of teaching, prayer, workshops and Mass. We listened to Cardinal catechists, among them the Archbishop of Manila, Luis Tagle, who encouraged us to be touched by the mercy of Christ; my former boss, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan who urged the young pilgrims to be agents and instruments of God’s mercy and Cardinal Sean O’Malley who spoke on how to practice mercy and how to be people of mercy. A catechist is a teacher of the faith whose mission is to build up, encourage, instruct and challenge the faith of the students. There were approximately 15,000 pilgrims present for these catechetical sessions which began with spirited music, witness talks whose timely and relevant topics included marriage, chastity, prayer, vocation, relationships, sacrifice, Scripture, prayer. Priest confessors were kept very busy during the morning sessions.
A memorable teaching was given by a Sister of Divine Mercy, Sister Faustina’s Order. She mesmerized the audience with her reflection on the Cross of the Savior. “He did it for me” was the mantra she repeated as she spoke about the Cross. She encouraged devotion to the Crucified Lord and spoke of the redemption offered by the Cross. The freedom to be who God made us to be.
After her talk the assembly came to life with energizing Praise and Worship Music followed by Mass. The huge Center echoed with solemn Byzantine tones and music that lifted the soul to God. A break for lunch followed Mass and then a variety of workshops were offered. These provided an opportunity to meet other English speaking pilgrims from around the world and from around our country. Youth ministering to youth. Encouraging one another in faith; experiencing the young faith of young people. We all need models of faith and young people need young models of which there were plenty at World Youth Day 2016. Enthusiasm for Christ and for the Church and for pilgrimage were infectious in the atmosphere of that Center.
On Friday evening the Holy Father presided at the Stations of the Cross which were prayed and performed as 14 works of mercy. To Follow the Cross is to respond to those who need the mercy of Jesus Christ. The Stations were brought alive by performances that illustrated situations in need of the Mercy of God.
The morning of the Vigil our group offered Mass at 6:30 a.m. so that our pilgrims could get an early start and begin the walk to the Campus Misericordiae for the overnight Vigil. At the Mass we prayed for spiritual strength for the pilgrimage. They walked nine miles in the heat of the day. There were thousands, hundreds of thousands doing the same. No one complained. There was joy and companionship on the roads among the young who pressed on to the campgrounds.
The Vigil with the Holy Father lasted more than three hours. It was prayerful, instructive, challenging. His homily was an exhortation on the Mercy of God. Four witness talks by young people who spoke about the merciful action of God in their lives. The Pope engaged the crowd with his preaching and the accompanying music stirred our souls. More than a million young people spent the night in the open air trying to get some sleep. It was exciting for them. Their sense of community and Church had very much jelled at this point in the pilgrimage.
The Concluding Mass on Sunday concelebrated by the Holy Father and hundreds of bishops and priests. The reports were 2.5 million at the Mass. The Pope spoke about Zacchaeus, the small man who tried to see Jesus. Seeing Jesus in the World Youth Day crowds; seeing Jesus in a foreign land; seeing Jesus among those who are not like us; but seeing Him. The Pope urged the young people to get close to Christ and not to let anyone or anything prevent that from happening.
That night our group enjoyed a festive farewell meal. Yes, they were tired and some with blistered feet but they were very alive in Christ and changed by their experience at World Youth Day 2016. “Blessed are the Merciful, for they will obtain mercy” was the theme of World Youth Day. For me this was an exhilarating experience to be with young people who are excited by faith, by Jesus Christ and by Church. I know something happened to me on World Youth Day and I am as sure that something happened to our young people.
With gratitude to our benefactors, especially the many priests of our diocese who generously responded to my ask so that we could take and encourage our seminarians in their vocational discernment and to The Charitable Exchange without whose generosity this would never have happened.