Day 14 & 15 – The Walking Bridge

“Life nowadays tells us that it is much easier to concentrate on what divides us, what keeps us apart. People try to make us believe that being closed in on ourselves is the best way to keep safe from harm. Today, we adults need you to teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!”

May this human bridge be the beginning of many, many others; in that way, it will leave a mark. Today Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, is calling you to leave your mark on history. He, who is life, is asking each of you to leave a mark that brings life to your own history and that of many others. He, who is truth, is asking you to abandon the paths of rejection, division and emptiness. Are you up to this? What answer will you give, with your hands and with your feet, to the Lord, who is the way, the truth and the life?

– Pope Francis, WYD Vigil 2016

The sun exploded over the horizon to beckon us onward. Before our eyes could adjust to the new surroundings, the megatron powered back up and the loud speakers became our alarm clocks! DAWN had arrived, and the Son of God was revealing His majesty in all His splendor! For us, we had experienced the Paschal Mystery on so many levels that we’re STILL dreaming about them, as if recounting them to everyone back home would never stop. Moreover, the energetic HIGH that we received upon arising was different than the other powerful encounters I’ve received at World Youth Day and other retreats. This “retreat high” was tied more closely to our personal embrace of God’s Mercy than any other moment in our lives thus far.

Certainly, Pope Francis’ words charged us to go forth and spread the Gospel, just as any retreat director, chaplain, or minister would inspire us to do. Yet, his words cut more deeply this time, perhaps as America prepares itself for very uncertain times ahead. Without speaking politically or bureaucratically at all, he called us to unite our efforts in such a way that people would be completely baffled at our creativity and leadership! This opportunity is the work of the Holy Spirit among us, and you can rest assured that our hearts are open and actively seeking ways to live this great charge out in the world.

Thus, our enthusiastic waves to Pope Francis as he drove by about 2-3 more times that morning were simply passing fancies in our hearts at this late stage in the game. We had seen him, and to satisfy Archbishop Kurtz’s observation–the Holy Father saw us too, and that was all that mattered. Our little group from Louisville KY USA had traveled across the great ocean that separated the continents and felt the Kingdom of God at hand. Yes indeed, the Resurrection is REAL and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass made our final moments with the Universal Church complete.

The Circle of Life Youth had received the Bread of Life once more, and it was time to hear where we would perhaps meet His Body the Church again.

Yet, as we were making our great walk back to Wielicka and witnessing the mass exodus of pilgrims, Pope Francis was preparing to make his final remarks to the World Youth Day organizers in the Mercy Centre in downtown Krakow that evening. His words were ominous, but intensely REAL for our lives right now!

“This World Youth Day has been an adventure. To work, to serve, and afterwards…to rest. […] Thanks to all of you who participated in this adventure with hope and energy. […] You are the hope for the future, and that’s true. But with some conditions. […]

[First] Remember where I come from, to have present the memory of my people, my family, my history. […] A young person without memory is NOT a hope for the future, is that clear? But how can we preserve our memory? Speak to your parents, speak to your grandparents above all, is that clear? So if you want to be a hope for the future, you need to receive the torch which is being passed to you from your grandparents. Are you going to PROMISE me that? And if your grandparents have already gone to Heaven, then speak to other elderly people. That’s the FIRST condition: to remember.

Here’s the second condition. […] I need you to be courageous. […] We need to have courage to live the present. If we have memory of our past, courage for our present, then we’ll have hope for our future! […] I don’t know if you will be in Panama, I don’t know if I will be there, but I know Peter will be there. […] Then you can go respond to Peter. God bless you all very much, thank you, thank you for everything!”

Peter will meet us in Panama! Who knows if our little group of pilgrims will make the trip, or even if Pope Francis will live to see that day. He certainly understands humility and service to this pilgrim Church on Earth though doesn’t he?! We walked for miles and miles and miles that last day together, this time with Kim and Mary right beside us. We didn’t care how long it would take us either, for our exhaustion was at its peak, but our spirits were fully alive and receptive to every joyful moment we would have together. The Polish people were so loving, the neighbors surrounding the Field of Mercy showered us with their water hoses, allowing us to drink clean water from their homes (much better than the apple-mint or mineral water we had with us!) But then it started to pour down rain upon us for much of our long sojourn to the Wielicka bus station!

It was scorching hot temperatures, and then a violent downpour of Satan’s fury as his crushed head continues its final death throws in these end times–HELL was unleashing its anger upon the joy and power of Christ’s VICTORY over death, and the glorious countenance which graced the face of every pilgrim we met was yet another reflective edifice by which the darkness of Satan was being banished to the netherworld. Mother Teresa after all said it best:

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

Her canonization on this historic day completes our pilgrimage to Poland, for Sr. Caryn Crush has been in ROME throughout these last days, and I feel it appropriate to finish these sacred reflections on this day as they travel home.

And so, as the empty bus arrived in our station after 30 minutes of long overdue anticipation, not even the weight of a THOUSAND pilgrims trying to slam their way onto the bus could thwart our joyful spirits–for we knew we were all in this together. We were there for the same joyful and heavenly purpose, and though we did have to do our bit of pushing and shoving to ensure all eleven of us made it onto that bus, we weren’t disturbed in the least!

I just grabbed Kristin and Mary, and with one arm on the door, I pushed out and made a hole to bring them through to safety, and with all of us miraculously placed there at the right moment, we were on our way back to Borek Falecki and Sw. Bartolomeo the Apostle parish. Yes, it took us FIVE LONG HOURS of walking, bussing, and everything else before we finally stepped off and into the downpour of rain that welcomed us into the arms of Fr. Stanislaw, for he and Natalia had come to take us home to Warsaw for one final night! Oh how wonderful was the joy on his face as we jumped into his arms in the middle of that baptismal downpour! The long busride to Warsaw stopped at McDonalds one more time, and even though we didn’t get to go to Our Lady of Czestochowa, we know God will bring us back one day–and if not here on Earth, then the real Mary will meet us at the gates of Heaven, which is the whole point of these beautiful experiences anyway!

So it was our last night in Poland then. All was quiet, and we couldn’t believe it was almost over. Marek had breakfast as usual, and soon enough, we had everything packed up and ready to go. Only, we had one last moment with our parish family at Corpus Christi, and our pastor made us cry one more time.

“Poland is crying as we say goodbye to our pilgrims”, and surely, he was right! It was raining very steadily in Warsaw that morning, and as they played “Blessed Are the Merciful” that final time, I saw our beautiful young cantor gesture for me to join her and sing in English one last time, and I couldn’t help myself. I just walked to the front of church and joined in the great chorus that set the tone for our entire journey. It was overwhelming how much God had blessed us on this journey, for we cannot fathom how many trials we will face in our Church in the coming years. The MERCY and LOVE of God Almighty has been enshrined in our hearts for all eternity, and NOTHING, no war, famine, death, division, politics, bureaucracy, principalities or powers can separate us from the LOVE of Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign KING!

We traveled non-stop from the moment we took our last group picture together at the Field of Mercy to the moment we were climbing in our beds back in Kentucky, yet we never really have stopped. We got one beautiful reprieve in the airport as our entire Polish family from Warsaw surprised us to say goodbye! There was a piano in the middle of the airport too, and soon enough, we were all singing joyously STO LAT (to Madeline!) and the beautiful Blessed Are the Merciful to give hope and joy to all the pilgrims departing with us. It’s not over yet everyone, and yet, we felt the real world beckoning all the same.

Yet even more than all the changing winds and transitional moments, the joy of Heaven was still reigning in our hearts, and I don’t think it’ll ever really stop! I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the Blessed Virgin Mary to have been confronted with such an awesome vision as the Angel Gabriel appeared to her on that sacred day!!!

As if all time and space stood still in silent anticipation for her long-awaited response–one she so graciously accepted in her FIAT, “Behold, I am the HANDMAID of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to THY Word”–she knew in her heart of hearts that her true happiness, and the true difference she could make in the world were inherently linked. She knew the desire to be happy and the desire to make a difference rested in the hands of Her Lord, the One who created her. She carried that deep trust in His Divine Love throughout every trial of her life, and as she witnessed the same son she carried in her womb, the same son she raised for over 20 years, as she witnessed his violent torture and death on the cross, she knew…even in the midst of her agony, that it would not be in vain.

With his resurrection, ascension into Heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost, she knew her mission on Earth was coming to a close. As she lived out the remaining years of her earthly life, just imagine being the Beloved Disciple in St. John the Apostle as he took her into his home at the command of Christ! Imagine those dinner conversations and daily chores together?! What must they have talked about?! Surely the beautiful work of Christ within all of His Church in those early years…the conversions, the healings, the redemption in the hearts of so many lost and weary souls.

But then it was time. As St. John and the Blessed Mother must have carried on and on into the night, talking about the great passion of Christ in their lives, in their affirmation of one another’s faithfulness during such sacred moments, God was beckoning Mary onward. When she awoke, as the Church proclaims, she was assumed into Heaven Body and Soul, to be fully exalted in Heaven soon thereafter as Queen of Heaven and Earth!

It makes sense then that our final moments together were to be similar! The bus-ride from Chicago to Louisville was filled with laughter and affirmation over the powerful joys and sufferings of Christ’s work within our lives during those two short weeks. It was the Red Crown and the White Crown, fully placed upon each other…one person at a time, with each pilgrim getting the opportunity to affirm the one in the spotlight. Yet, as each person spoke, a great drowsiness overcame our senses, and the affirmation was continued by the angels in Heaven. Our eyes gave way to the Beatific Vision that our earthly affirmations and support of one another could only foreshadow. Thus, true humility does not reject praise, but neither does it require it. We were content with Christ’s greatness within us, and it was time to rest in the Lord’s goodness for the final leg of the journey home.

Thank you Mom and Dad for driving from Louisville to Chicago and back with a bunch of sleepy pilgrims! Your sacrifice is one more step in making our journey possible. And thank you all so much for your patience, support, and joyful affirmation in this great leap of faith that all of us were graced to take together. Remember everyone, we are pilgrims, NOT tourists–and that prayer followed us every step of the way, to the very last night…

Indeed, the joys we shared with one another that night found their fulfillment in the great depth of certitude that each of us carries within our hearts into the rest of our lives. We are beloved children of God the Father in Heaven, and it His MERCY that endures forever! For “Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall receive mercy!”

We hope you have been able to share a taste of our encounter with Divine Intimacy!

In Christ, for Love & Life!

– John Sohl & the WYD 2016 Contingency

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