Mary got the call immediately after lunch, and we were shaken deeply with grief and shock. Mary Whitfill’s beloved grandfather, Papaw Leroy, had a massive heart attack on Sunday, and Monday before tragically passing away. As we stood in bewilderment at what God’s mercy was really supposed to convey to us in that moment, we couldn’t help ourselves. Mary was on the phone with family, and we were gently praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and other prayers beside her. Our patron saints in Heaven were clearly at work on this pilgrimage, for we felt the sense that many beautiful souls were entering the Gates of Mercy during this sacred week.
It was here that we encountered the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to a profundity unmatched by any moments before it. This was not a program of catechesis or structured environment of encounter. This was raw, unfiltered grief, and it gripped us all drastically in the midst of this joyful culture! When Mary came back to us, we simply wandered back toward the church to pray together and have some time for recollection. Yet, somehow we got turned around in the Old Town of Krakow, and suddenly we were entering a completely different sanctuary of an unknown church, but what was inside left us in wonder and awe.
The church was full of pilgrims worshipping in Adoration, spending time in Confession, and praying together in the side chapels with other World Youth Day organizers. Somehow, we entered a church where people were actively seeking healing and mercy from complete strangers! The Body of Christ then came out in its fullness for our dear Mary Whitfill and the rest of us at this critical moment, and we knew it was Divine Providence that had led us to them…
Suddenly, we felt the holy jolt of youthful ardor rise up within us, and soon we were on our way to the great Mercy Center for the English speaking event of a lifetime. Getting through security was a chore indeed, and the stadium was massive…reminding us of NCYC from November in dramatic ways. Yet, even though Matt Maher was the main headliner for the evening, with Audrey Assad’s accompaniment–just like at NCYC–this time it was different. Countries from all over the world attended this moment, and after running around throughout the stadium with our American flag (Madeline and I went all out during this early insanity!), it was time to settle down for the spiritual encounter awaiting us!
A couple of things occurred throughout this night, as Christ came before us. His entrance was dramatic, and the Monstrance which housed Him was the largest monstrance I’ve ever seen. It took three men to lift it up for Benediction, and one of those men just happened to be one of Christ’s great leaders in our Church today, Bishop Robert Barron himself!
When he turned around and introduced himself, we were floored with the sheer aura of masculinity which emanated from him. He was a big man, and we could feel the weight of his words of wisdom embedding themselves in our hearts. God’s grace allowed me to get all of his reflection on video, so wait patiently for the final product to come out this Fall!
Outside of those emotional highs of Transfiguration, we encountered a lot of unexpected moments of joy and uncertainty. Papaw Leroy’s passing shocked us deeply, and throughout that evening, we all had small moments of fear grip us to varying degrees. Christ was among us, no doubt about that, but Satan was working to sow in the anxiety, doubt, and frustration that often accompanies a lack of trust in God’s mercy.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation was offered to calm the storms raging within us.
For me, this moment of Reconciliation was profound, and I will share how it brought about this Way of Trust within me, if only to clarify the bigger picture of our collective journey. You see, as my confessor explained, sanctity is often found in BREVITY, and acknowledging the depth of this blog by which I explain this, he was referring to our capacity to articulate the desires God has placed on our hearts. Instead of attempting to justify our desires to God at every turn–a task which often leaves us with unfinished sentences and incomplete thoughts–God calls us to TRUST IN HIM.
He loves us so very much, and He has given us all good, true, and beautiful desires and dreams! We must know that our desires are NOT bad, and if we can learn how to integrate our grip and ownership of those holy desires into our commitment to the will of God, HE always reveals His glory within us! We then become stewards of God’s Plan for our Salvation, for we have received His love and mercy…instead of grasping for it prematurely.
That realization came to Michael when he took a phone call and got locked outside the Mercy Center without being allowed back in. He found a young religious sister whom he knew from Ignite Your Torch, and they graciously led him to a church JPII had illegally celebrated Mass within during the Communist and Atheistic rule over Poland. It was scary for Michael to be separated from the group, but he overcame it, and God’s love and mercy took care of him during that difficult time of uncertainty. We reconnected at the end of the night of course!
Kim’s difficult time from her knee surgery and the dozens of miles we had already walked at this point were proving to be obstacles of discouragement for her in a very big way. But by God’s grace, we found three seats on the ground floor where she could sit and relax without being alone. Kristin and I were blessed to sit with her, and I think that gave Kristin her incredible encounter in a beautiful way as well! Indeed, it was one of the single largest and most powerful experiences in Eucharistic Adoration we had ever encountered. Bishop Robert Barron himself said, “I was overwhelmed by that experience…It was one of the highlights of my entire priesthood.” We were reduced to tears as we worshipped our Risen Lord in the Blessed Sacrament!
But this I think is what really began to happen to us all this night. I was graced with speaking to Madeline a bit about her discernment and openness to God’s will. She asked me a bit about spiritual direction, and I would say it’s one of the most common needs and desires for us as young people…particularly as we enter our 20s in search of our vocations. It’s something that I desperately needed as I entered the second half of my junior year and considered the priesthood for the first time. That spirit of discernment has honestly never left my heart, and I see that light of faith as a great gift from God which I never want to extinguish or neglect!
Thus, when Benediction was complete and the Divine Praises brought us to the joy of the Jubilee, Matt Maher brought us all down to the ground floor for us to celebrate the Gift of God’s LIFE within us! The spirit of our Confirmations had set us on fire that night, and who better to experience it with than my good friend and brother from seminary at St. Meinrad, Will Banowski?! From Oklahoma City, he’s currently studying in Rome, and at that exact moment as we descended into the throng of excited pilgrims, I heard his loud boisterous voice echo through the stadium. “JOHN SOHL!” and I was quickly lifted onto his shoulders to wave the American Flag in all its glory!
Of all the people with whom I could have celebrated that moment of authentic Freedom, I was so blessed to have shared it with Will. Before we parted ways, he handed me the beautiful rosary he had received for serving with Pope Francis in Rome during a Mass in the Vatican! He said, “You need it more than me John. I know where I’m going, and I believe this will help you find your vocation.”
Thank you Will for your incredible presence and gift of self! What freedom he demonstrated when he handed me that rosary, fully aware of his self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift which all of us are called to encounter! God Himself desires us to enter the crucible of self-discovery because only there can we receive the confidence of our true identities! I am so blessed to have witnessed the openness that our entire pilgrim contingency has shared during these days of mercy, for though our group reflections have often been pushed to the long tram rides home each night…the spiritual insight and willingness to share has given this theological reflection a substance which greatly exceeds my limited experience.
But isn’t that similar to America? Though we bolster in our “greatness”, we are still but a young nation, untested by time, war, and death. Witnessing the terror of Poland’s past has only made me realize how much more America has to learn about real freedom. “The American Way” simply MUST learn to embrace our somewhat hidden treasure, for it is “In God We TRUST”…and that holy abandonment to Divine Providence is the very means by which we will enter into our sanctification!
Vocations to Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, or Religious Life are simply the varying expressions of God’s calling within each of us! We simply have to go to the heights, or in JPII’s approach, “to the depths” so as to discover God’s beautiful calling for us!
But that will have to wait until tomorrow!
In Christ, for Love and Life!
– John Sohl & the WYD 2016 Contingency