Raymond Kolbe was playing around as a normal five-year-old little boy one day when his mother scolded him saying, “Raymond, what will ever become of you?!” Later in life, that same man recounted how deeply this experience affected him. He described taking this question to the Blessed Mother, most likely Our Lady of Czestochowa, in great distress. Immediately, she appeared to him holding two crowns, a white crown symbolic of purity, and a red crown for martyrdom. She asked him which crown he wanted, and as a typical young boy would say, he wanted them BOTH!
St. Maximilian Kolbe became a saint, not just for how he died to save another man in the Auschwitz Concentration Camps, but in how he lived each day of his heroic and holy life. It is tragic that he could not have lived to continue his apostolic work in the world, but Christ had placed young Kolbe in a critical moment in the history of mankind, for an onslaught of pain, suffering, and merciless genocide was building with each passing day. The Great War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”, but it only lay dormant those seeking to exterminate the unfit and burdensome while experimenting on how best to create the very utopia that Christ condemns. “You cannot worship both God and mammon.”
And so, we as your pilgrim contingency for this year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland are spending the first week in what is called “Days in the Diocese”. We have a wonderful host parish of Corpus Christi here in Warsaw (about 4 hours north of Krakow), and they have been taking us to museums and religious sites among other worthwhile experiences so that we can deepen our understanding of what truly took place in those dark and desperate days. Some of the greatest heroes rose up during those years, and I am privileged to have met a few, my Grandpa Elder being one of them!
Yet, walking through the Warsaw Uprising Museum showed us one powerful truth. We have studied this horrific history of our world all our lives, but actually bearing witness to the very places and people it affected is overwhelming. Walking through the floors and floors of these sacred archives–rubble and artifacts, death certificates, love letters that never reached their lovers, all blanketed with the deafening sounds of Gospel hymns telling us to “just sing louder” as the screams for mercy were ringing out from the trains headed to Auschwitz and Birkenau for certain death–I cry in anguish even now as I write and relive the incomparable echoes of such horrors. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” comes to mind to fill the void of my inadequate authority to relate such misery…
Despair is all consuming in this world of death and taxes, and if we allow ourselves to believe in nothing more, then our hope is for naught. Instead, we came away from the past amazed at the power of the Polish spirit. Christ’s gift of their FAITH in the midst of such darkness was the light that brought forth the Resurrection! We saw, through the passage of time and the grace of God that Poland had overcome the darkness of the Third Reich, and on the Third DAY burst forth in dazzling white glory in the Fire of Mercy that is World Youth Day. This faith is famous in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s starvation in place of a young father, and he bore the fruit of grace that only the Holy Spirit and his Immaculata could have grown from his timeless death.
And so, we celebrated such a victory! The entire evening was spent in celebration of the Polish victory over darkness and the youthful ardor that had replaced it! We immediately got lunch at a wonderful Polish buffet at the local mall where poor Madeline began her unending tradition of singing her happy birthday when it’s not even actually until September! If you know our group, take one guess on who you think started it (cough, Michael!)…including his prompting of the Polish, Spanish, and I think even the Brazilian version of happy birthday before the night was over. We’re officially calling it her “un-birthday”, but today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdeline which is basically her Feast Day so it’s not helping her case much! 🙂
Anyway–outside of that “Red Crown of Martyrdom” moment for our most positive and good-natured pilgrim Madeline–we were given a longer amount of time than a guy like me is used to for SHOPPING (I actually fell asleep in a comfortable chair in one of the stores where Kim, Madeline, and Sr. Caryn had to come wake me up!). Then some of us splurged on a great helping of gelato (the best ice cream in the world) before heading into the old town square that survived WWII. Because the rest of Warsaw had been virtually destroyed, the central celebration necessitated that would take place in the most beautifully restored town square of Warsaw, Poland!
On our way, we stopped at the Church of the Visitation, and it had more relics of more saints than I’ve ever seen in one place! The sculpted and anchored vessel they had hewn into the side of the sanctuary was truly a sight to be seen! The Catholic Church really becomes a vessel by which the entire world is steered magnificently toward Christ, and the Blessed Mother Mary are the sails by which we reach that destination, and we could not help but smile radiantly with joy as we gazed upon such beauty that America desperately needs.
Outside of that beautiful chapel though, we were graced with the many events going on throughout the festive atmosphere. Whether you wanted to buy and send a postcard to family or purchase blow-up air mattresses for next week’s vigil with Pope Francis, whether you saw a piano in the middle of the street and felt the need to have a spontaneous concert burst forth from within (Michael and I got to play a few tunes while half our group sang along for everyone in the town to hear!) or whether you wanted to shop for souvenirs, trinkets, more gelato (of course!) or sit in line to have your portrait drawn in less than an hour–there was more to do than could ever be done in that single afternoon!
The Cathedral was absolutely breathtaking, and I pray we can revisit it before we leave for Krakow on Sunday. If not, we enjoyed the time we had, even saying hello to Our Lord Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration for a few minutes as we marveled at the massive edifice! Indeed, we were experiencing the fullness of Polish culture, and, as the afternoon wore on, we were feeling the Polish culture in our feet, our backs, and our stomachs as well!
Michael’s casual suggestion to get dinner turned into a nice sit-down restaurant in the heart of the old town square, where we enjoyed what our friend and translator Natalia called “dumplings” or in Polish “pierogi” (she actually just helped me spell it as I write this blog!) We were quite tired at this point, so we let the time pass slowly and enjoyed every second of reprieve, for we could sense the quickness of each day’s passage and we still don’t want it to end!
Luckily, we’re not there yet, for this is still only the beginning to the celebration! The victory of the Resurrection came forth when Natalia and her friends brought us to the main event, the massive concert on the coolest mainstage for a World Youth Day I’d ever seen, absolutely perfect for our pilgrimage this year! (Heh heh, it’s a “Circle of Life” joke I’m making if you didn’t catch on, but it’s okay, you can laugh later!)
This is where we danced the night away, after working through the massive crowd for our first time. This is where we sang the official World Youth Day theme song this year, “Blessed Are the Merciful” in thundering perfection. And this is where we entered into the grand adventure that only Catholicism in Christ Jesus could bring us! The Eucharist really IS Jesus Christ everyone, and by uniting ourselves around HIM, every barrier of division is broken down! We found ourselves singing the English words with our Polish brethren as they poured out their hearts (in Polish!) for the glory of their cultural uprising, all for the glory of the God who gave them the strength and faith to hold fast to their vast heritage.
As we go forth into the future excitement, know this. Many things are awakening within our hearts on this pilgrimage. A transformation is taking place like never before. Though we are all at different places on our journey, I know that the Year of Mercy and this unprecedented moment in the history of the Church and of the world will reverberate throughout our lives in ways no other experience has ever done before.
St. Maxmilian Kolbe, pray for us! We will reflect over your life more in depth when we enter the City of the Immaculate, for Day 5 is to finally take us to Niepekelanow!
In Christ, for Love and Life!
– John Sohl & the WYD 2016 Contingency