Hello everyone! We are continuing the journey through World Youth Day, and though it is taking a bit longer to reflect over this trip, rest assured that once it is complete, we will have it forever for reflection. On this morning then, we decided to skip our catechesis session for the morning and instead embark on a journey in the footsteps of John Paul the Great and enter quite literally “into the depths!”
We traveled to the city of Wielicka, just outside of Krakow where the famous Salt Mines are located! Of course, we didn’t quite know what to expect, but many of our friends back home told us we couldn’t pass it up! So, we got in line to wait patiently for the grand adventure to unfold. Of course, we didn’t know we had to pre-register, and this wasn’t like Auschwitz where we could just get in through the same gate. Rather, we had to go through the individual entrance and pay separately, and that entrance was on the opposite side of the entire place.
Ah, but we were used to the inconvenience and unexpected moments, so we embraced it quite jubilantly and took the short trudge to the other side. When we walked in then, that carefree spirit followed us straight to a nearby playground, complete with seesaw, swings, and jungle gym! But it wasn’t just ANY playground, it was a playground IN POLAND! So, we took a short hiatus to climb and slide and jump on every single random thing we saw. The Seesaw moment was really a turning point for a lot of us, for we had been bogged down by a lot of spiritual and emotional issues, both personal and from the pilgrimage.
Michael’s grandma was in very poor health at this time, and from the heartache of the day before with Mary, we knew we needed some spontaneity of a child at play! St. Therese of Lisieux would argue it’s the best remedy out there after all, for it truly is our Childhood Trust in God the Father that gets us through every heartache and difficult moment. Goofing off and getting stuck in the tire-jungle-gym, watching Hope wrestle her way off the top wooden beam, watching Mary effortlessly walk across the spring-loaded balance beam (when the rest of us fell off)–my oh my, what a joyful and simply encounter it was!
Indeed it prepared us for the great abyss which lay before us, and after working our way through the registration and security detail (no over-scrutiny on the vest this time!), we were ready for the grand tour…all about 800-900 steps below! Kim was able to take a lift to the bottom, and we were all supplied with headphones for the great plunge so we could listen to our guide in English! And thus, we began the long descend to the first level (of three), and those are just the levels they let us walk through. There are still six other levels below the lowest point we walked, just so you can sense the sheer depth of this monster!
Yes, when I say Salt Mines, I mean this is salty, and all pickle jokes aside (sorry Hope!), we could literally lick the walls and taste the salt! I really wasn’t going to do it either, but Mary dared me to do it, and then of course everyone needed photographic evidence, so we ended up having to lick the wall twice. Terrible I know, but it’s definitely salt! Heh heh, anyway…it was about as close to “tourism” as we could have gotten without actually going there, for we had come for a single glorious purpose–to see the grand carvings and contemplate the mystery of the famous Salt Mine Sanctuary in the bowels of the Earth!
And how beautiful it really was! The edifice had been hollowed out so thoroughly and so securely that they were able to hang chandeliers and sanctify this incredible place! The statues of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother were stunning, carved completely out of salt, with light shining through certain features so as to accentuate them all for the glory and praise of God! As we marveled at that beautiful church, it’s no wonder that Kim would prompt us to bust out in the Salve Regina, in honor of our Mother Mary! For surely, she would understand most fully what it means to “be knit in secret, in the depths of the Earth” as she encountered Her Lord within her very womb in the same hidden manner!
Psalm 139, my all-time favorite Psalm from scripture began to echo in our hearts at this time, for “darkness is as light to You” Lord Jesus, and we know fully that we cannot hide from Your face…no matter how deep and dark we enter into isolation or despair! God is with us so completely that He knows the very number of hairs on our heads, and you know how often that number is changing! We couldn’t even COUNT our hairs before the number would change, so God is as close to us as when we should breathe on our palm. As Bishop Robert Barron would posit, God desires to be with us “mouth to mouth”, so it’s no surprise then that such a thing as the Veneration of the Cross would call us to KISS such a reality.
And Michael was given the full experience of what the Veneration of the Cross would really sound and feel like too…if we had been the early Christians under Nero or the persecuted Jews and Catholics under Nazi-occupied Poland! Yes, as he knelt to venerate a relic of St. John Paul the Great in one of the last side-chapels at the end of the tour, he tripped the alarm and the whole place began to blast its sirens for all of us to hear! We ran away quickly, and we lived to joke on him for the rest of his life! Luckily though, we were near the elevator to the surface when it happened, so he didn’t have to endure the ridicule of security officials and be forced to stay down there and work the mines. Though, we certainly TRIED to make that happen. Just kidding, but seriously, Michael, good job!
Just as a deep search within ourselves could lay claim to exaggerated anxiety and lengthy time for reflection, so too did an anxiety come upon us as we rose to the surface. Knowing we wouldn’t have much time to eat, we stopped and got something to go from the restaurant at the bottom of the mines, and then we began to search for the point where we dropped off our backpacks with security! Of course they dropped us off on the opposite side of the world again, and of course the anxiety drove any thought of prayer out of our minds, and I found myself running back and forth in haste once more…
God is good though, and He quickly reminded us of our need for prayer and peace. So, we said our travel prayers together and prepared ourselves for the trek to the busstop to make our way to downtown Krakow and Blonia Park for the grand welcoming ceremony with Pope Francis himself! Only, we couldn’t find the bus-stop, and the only person who seemed to know where to go looked like she was taking us in the wrong direction. Until, she rounded a corner and we saw the bus waiting for us. She was actually holding the bus for us, just some Polish woman who felt the need to take care of us pilgrims, and so by God’s grace we found a comfortable seat on a bus that in less than two stops was completely full of World Youth Day pilgrims! She led us to a stop that WASN’T crowded, just so we could sit down for the ride…and suddenly, we were on our way!
For me, we were going to the Goodness Reigns Film Festival with Suzanne Haugh from Louisville Kentucky! We’ve been working together for the last few years since our pilgrimage to Brazil in 2013, and this time, she had graciously allowed me to present my film titled “Fire and Grace: Trusting the Light of Faith” at this film festival! The Film Festival of course was only lasting from 2pm-4pm, and we were already running behind because of the traffic and time it took for us to get back up to the surface from the mines! It would certainly be a challenge, but we were determined to make it. All we had to do was allow the bus to drop us off at the stop right in front of the building!
Ha, except for one thing! That was right next to Blonia Park, in the heart of the city, where all the pilgrims were planning to gather to greet Papa Francesco! When our bus driver stood up and told us to get off now if we wanted to go to Blonia Park because he couldn’t drive any further due to the barricade…well, I wish we knew how to speak Polish! We just sat there in ignorant bliss thinking he was just going to keep driving, and then…he turned right and drove across the bridge for another 2-3 blocks before we could get off!
It looked like the Goodness Reigns festival was out for us, so I just accepted it for what it was and set our sights on Blonia Park. We walked the long distance back to our original exit point and continued the trek toward the main entrance. The pilgrims were multiplying it seemed, and it was already past 3pm at this point. Michael was on the phone with his grandma during this sacred sojourn, and we didn’t know what we were to expect. As we passed the Kijow Theate, it was about 3:24, and I was told my film would be shown around 3pm. I had essentially resigned myself to not showing it, but I figured since we had made it before the festival was over that I should at least walk in and check in!
Isn’t God good?! As soon as I got through security and walked into the theatre, they had just started playing the film and our whole pilgrim contingency got to sit in to watch it. By Gods grace and mercy alone was I allowed to give a short presentation over the experience of “Fire and Grace”, and I got to relay the story of my own Grandma Fran and her passing in April of this year. Indeed, the solidarity we encountered together as a pilgrim family! Mary Whitfill, Michael Schultz, and Kim Abell were all in the midst of great loss in their families and friendships, and God brought the rest of us together to pray and weep together and a true Family of Love!
That jolt of intense Divine Providence gave us the rest and excitement for the remainder of the evening! After thanking Suzanne for her gracious hospitality and support, we headed out into the throngs of pilgrims in search for our section so we could settle in and prepare to welcome the Holy Father for the first time to Poland!
This time, we wanted to see the stage a little better, and we wanted to see the megatron well enough to participate in the celebration. God put us on the back barricade of our section, so that we could see both. Only, He had another incredible moment in store for us, and it came in the form of Sr. Caryn’s intense study of religious habits! “Isn’t that Emily and Mary’s community John?” Indeed, the Daughters of Merciful Love from Madrid, Spain were on the other side of the barricade, and all I had to do was search for the face of mercy who is Mary Reding herself!
Yes, my campus minister from Western Kentucky University who became a religious sister in Spain less than three years ago…and her face brought forth a cry of jubilation that I have not felt since she left. “MARY REDING!!! MARY REDING!!! MARY REDING!!!” I yelled over and over in ecstatic joy! When she heard me, I saw her rush through the crowds and into the gateway where she jumped for joy at the sight of us! Mary Whitfill, Sr. Caryn, and I were of course the only pilgrims in our group who knew Mary, but the effect our reunion was having on us infected the rest of the group, and after screaming across the roadway long enough for a priest to ask us to quiet down, Mary couldn’t take it anymore. Rushing under the barricade itself, she ran into my arms and into the history books! What amazing Divine Providence this day had become, and it still was not over yet!
Indeed, if you are reading this reflection, you clearly are journeying with us most fully! At that exact moment of uniting with Mary, Pope Francis came back in his Pope Mobile for the first time to greet us! Oh the joy was beyond this world, fit only for the Kingdom of God, and the Vicar of Christ hadn’t even reached the stage yet! Eventually, Mary and to go back to her community, so we parted ways to settle into the evenings’ “Celebration of the Word” with the Universal Church, and that’s when I saw the light turn on in Kristin’s eyes! Oh what glorious works You are awakening within us Lord Jesus!
Lectio Divina is the means by which we encounter Christ most authentically in Holy Scripture. “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said St. Jerome, for Christ is literally the “Word made FLESH”. If we enter into quiet time reflecting with His Word, then surely, we will hear His voice resonate on our hearts! After a lengthy discussion about discernment and the interior life, Kristin, Kim, and I were blessed to share a time of Lectio Divina together…and my Lord, the floodgates of Divine “PROVIDENCE” were opened for all of us to see! Kristin was in tears in our “umbrella moment” of goodness, truth, and beauty! As the great ALLELUIA burst forth from the Heavenly Choir at Blonia Park, we had just finished a powerful and simple reflection over Romans chapter 8 together.
Only then were we ready to pack up our things and prepare for the long journey home. Of course we had to find food first though, so we went to the white tents where they accepted our tickets and we quickly got our food. And then, when Michael went to the bathroom, we all got up and pretended we had left! We took our stuff and hid behind the bushes for Michael to come back to nothing! Well, we had left his stuff behind as we kept our eyes on it…and then when another group of pilgrims chose to sit in our same spot, they agreed to pretend he was just part of their group! We even told them his name was Michael and to greet him like normal! AND HE SAT DOWN TO EAT WITH THEM LIKE NORMAL TOO!
You see the hilarious and peaceful encounters we all are graced to share with one another? We didn’t know this group at all, yet (thankfully they spoke English!) they were willing and able to take part in our little joke, and Michael sure got a full dose of what he was dishing out on a daily basis!
There is still much to tell concerning our glorious pilgrimage to Poland, so be patient! These are long and deep reflections, and if you have the heart for them, enter in and encounter the Year of Mercy in its full youthful ardor which Christ Himself desires us to embrace! We are children of God everyone, and it is our privilege to bring this experience to all of you back home! There is still much beauty and truth to come, so until then…
In Christ, for Love and Life!
– John Sohl & the WYD 2016 Contingency