What is it really? The United States of America has long stood as a beacon to the world, shining the light of freedom into the world’s darkest sectors of human atrocities. In fact, many attribute the USA’s entry into the Second World War as the critical moment that strengthened the Allied Forces enough to end the international suffering. The splitting of the atom then seemed at the time to be the final moment that sealed America’s fate as the symbol of freedom by which the Greatest Generation had earned.
Let freedom ring, and our manifest destiny suddenly included the entire world. It just looked different from how Lewis and Clark’s generation may have first thought. All the same, freedom was won for the world that day, and we have never had such an earth shattering conflict occur since that day. Again…so it would seem.
It certainly gave us the ability to peacefully depart from Chicago-O’Hare to the glorious city of Krakow, Poland and encounter the joy, peace, and love that spotting an American seemed to bring from the crowds! Shouts of USA! USA! USA! would often ring out from the thousands of pilgrims from dozens of different countries. Michael was still working on getting every country in the world to sing Happy Birthday to Madeline (a never ending theme to our one-of-a-kind experience!), and the colorful atmosphere saturated our psyche in a way that we simply could not ignore. Goodness began to reign in our hearts!
Thus, it was no surprise when we arrived at St. Catherine of Alexandria in the Kosciol region of Krakow, we were instantly greeted with the joy of our fellow patriots! It was the first day of our English speaking catechesis opportunity, and by God’s grace, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz had reached me the day before with his location and invitation to his catechesis and a late lunch afterward! Who can say no to the Archbishop of Louisville and the President of the USCCB?!
So, we got front row seats and took it all in. The organizers of the English speaking catechesis event were there, including Ms. Kathleen Carver, the Interim Executive Director for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry in the United States! She quickly got us signed up to help with a small part in the huge Adoration service at the Mercy Center later that evening, and though we couldn’t make it into the center and seated quickly enough to meet up with her, we were blown away that God had connected us in such an awesome way!
Then, Archbishop graced us with his humble and generous presence. His smile is contagious, and he quickly gave us the feeling that we were important and mattered. Not that we were more important than any other pilgrims there, but that he was truly invested in us during those sacred moments. Before we could think, he had already pulled out his phone and got us into a group photo for his latest Tweet, and then Michael, Fermin, and I were allowed to serve with him at the Mass later that morning!
Of course, the catechesis session started with the famous Tony Melendez offering his powerful witness with the guitar! A man without arms, Tony Melendez has now been to 11 different World Youth Days in his life. He is most known for his encounter with St. John Paul the Great in his early days, and since then his joy and inspiration has spread throughout the world. I’ve been privileged with seeing him perform now at least 3-4 times, and this time, his brother was even there to help and witness this great man!
After hyping us up and getting us actively engaged in the excitement of World Youth Day, it was time to introduce the Archbishop and begin the short session of catechesis and Q&A. Archbishop had actually been sitting right next to us in the chairs waiting for his cue to go on, so it was quite something to experience this great grace from God! Before he went up to deliver his address, he commented on the beauty of the sacred art and golden statues and designs surrounding the altar. In a way that bespoke of a deeper sense of freedom and commitment, he said to me quite simply, “It lifts you up.”
Of course it does Archbishop! It lifts us up to the highest heights of Heaven, for it brings us to a sense of wonder and awe like nothing else on Earth! The Catholic sanctuary is the very place where Heaven MEETS Earth, not just in some symbolic and emotionally charged way, NO! This is a very REAL and substantial claim, and the beautiful art is meant to remind us and bring us to a greater awareness of that literal fact. Archbishop reminded me with that simple truth how much louder our sense of freedom is meant to ring!
And so, we entered into that beloved reality. Archbishop and all the concelebrants prepared us to receive Jesus in the Eucharist during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! I hadn’t served in at least a year and not regularly since I was just getting out of high school with St. Luke, and here I was at the largest Catholic gathering on Earth offering myself for the glory of God in Heaven! It truly was a beautiful experience, for I myself realized at one point during the Mass where I happened to be standing.
You see, it was quite cramped on that altar with all those dozens of priests and deacons, so Michael, Fermin, and I were pushed to the very edge without anywhere to really sit down. The rest of the THOUSANDS of pilgrims began just inches away from us all and stretched to the very back of the ancient sanctuary. Indeed, it was as traditional a Catholic sanctuary as you could come by, founded in 1375 and preserved through the centuries, and I just happened to be standing where the line between the altar and the congregation began the stairway to Heaven! A division within my soul of sorts I guess, but I believe a division which really infects ALL of our hearts when you really think about it.
At the end of Mass, the pastor of the parish thanked Archbishop and all the priests present for their sacrifice and service. But then he ended his closing remarks with this radical statement. “Who all in here has a boyfriend or girlfriend?” he asked, waiting for the laughter. “Who all in here is single and waiting? Ahh, don’t waste your life! Come explore the greater treasure troves that Christ Himself is offering you!”
At first, such a statement may make you want to scream in outrage for belittling the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony! Or was he? Perhaps he was commenting on the great rush to “find someone” as if there’s a ONE TRUE LOVE out there waiting for us within the heart, soul, and mind of another human being. Another imperfect soul is out there waiting to “complete” us, so we can be FREE and HAPPY to the fullest sense of the word!
Yet, that sense of freedom has been warped by the culture! The man wasn’t belittling marriage and the family, he was LIFTING IT UP and calling us to something higher than ourselves. He called us to a greater sense of our vocations, so we can deepen our sense of commitment and freedom so that Christ Himself can lead us into our sanctification. Whether it’s Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, or Religious Life, we are not made for comfort or “free reign” concerning our relationships. We were made for GREATNESS, and that sometimes calls us to an insane lifestyle of persevering sacrifice and authentic love!
Marriage and the Family would do quite well if every couple discerning this holy calling would take the time to strengthen themselves within this understanding. Archbishop Kurtz certainly saw the value in that when he allowed us all the grace to eat with him as a Louisville family at a wonderful Italian restaurant (ironic I know) just outside of the parish walls! Suzanne Haugh from the Goodness Reigns Film Festivals in Louisville joined us with her entire family at that time as well!
It was simple and fun, wonderful and blessed. We weren’t LUCKY to be there, as if luck had something to do with this Divine Providence of timing and peaceful dynamics. Archbishop Kurtz was almost moved to a different location last minute, and we would have never had the opportunity to be with him that we did. Suzanne and I had been working on a pilgrimage to WYD for almost two years, and both of us had to find separate ways because of the dynamics of our work. Her work with the Film Festival necessitated her presence in central Krakow for ease of transportation. My work in youth ministry meant I needed to look at subsistence and cheaper ways of helping the pilgrims take the leap of faith! And somehow, through all our mutual commitments, through our FIATs, God graced us with the powerful family atmosphere we encountered with our country’s President (at least of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops!)
This was true freedom. Not to do whatever we wanted to do, however we wanted to do it. Rather, the discernment and trust we put into our encounter throughout these many months of preparation–and the intensity that World Youth Day brings itself–all warranted us with the ABILITY to desire and choose the good that God’s grace bestowed.
As we delve into our tenth day’s afternoon, be prepared. The joy, peace, and love that authentic freedom brings does not mean that the division of war and death is avoidable just because we strive to be patient, prudent, and prodigal. Death is still part of the human condition due to our original sin, and with Archbishop’s exit came a powerful wave of realization that we would never forget.
In Christ, for Love and Life!
– John Sohl & the WYD 2016 Contingency