A pilgrimage of mercy

When we left the diocesan offices on Thursday 14 July to travel to World Youth Day (WYD) in Krakow, Poland, I knew all my fellow pilgrims’ faces, but I didn’t know anything about them. By the time we landed in Venice, 32 hours later, the wonderful people I had shared that never-ending journey with were my treasured friends. And 27 days later, I feel like the bonds we have forged are simply unbreakable.

This became especially evident one day during WYD week when our diocesan pilgrimage group attended one of a number of catechesis sessions under a big tent. These sessions were wonderful − we enjoyed fantastic music, singing, dancing and talks from a couple of cardinals and an archbishop from different parts of the world. At one point I found myself emotional; I had tears in my eyes and I wasn’t sure why. Later, I wrote in my notebook, “the infinite capacity of the heart to love”. At that moment, as well as many more throughout the journey, I was overwhelmed with love for my fellow pilgrims; we had become family to each other. The realisation just stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t expecting this to happen.

Pope Francis, in his address to pilgrims at the WYD welcoming ceremony at Blonia Park, went straight to the heart of this feeling.

“To say that Jesus is alive means to rekindle our enthusiasm in following him, to renew our passionate desire to be his disciples. What better opportunity to renew our friendship with Jesus than by building friendships among yourselves,” he said.

Our diocese chose to make our pilgrimage an inter-generational one and I believe this was an inspired decision. It’s called World Youth Day and it’s absolutely aimed at young people beginning their adult faith journey. As one of the more ‘vintage’ members of the group, however, I believe that World Youth Day should always be for everyone, regardless of age. I realised that I have only ever had a small glimpse into my faith. It’s always been important to me, but I haven’t actively nurtured it beyond the obvious. This pilgrimage made me want to learn more, to be more, to give more of myself, to connect the dots between who I am and my faith. God, who is ‘hopelessly hopeful’, as Pope Francis put it at the final Mass, has big plans for all of us regardless of what decade we happen to be in. We all have so much to offer and so much to gain from an experience such as this. In many ways, I feel like I was at a point in my life that allowed me to be open to everything; with the maturity to understand the subsequent whisperings in my heart. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

A pilgrimage is not a holiday; we spoke about this a lot before we left. It should have purpose and meaning. It should include prayer, reflection and opportunities for worship at places that hold significant meaning for our faith. When we embark on a pilgrimage we should be opening ourselves up to a closer relationship with God. We should return transformed. Ours was all this and more. Our time in Italy, walking in the footsteps of the saints and bonding with each other, really allowed us to get the most out of WYD in Poland.

I was reading a blog about pilgrimage recently and the author really summed up how different a pilgrimage is from a holiday.

“On a pilgrimage you get outside yourself and your own little world. You expand your horizons…visit holy sites and pray. You hear Mass and join your life with the life and prayer and faith of your brothers and sisters in another culture and another land. You learn about the trials, traumas and triumphs of those who came before and those who live differently to you. Your heart is opened. Your mind is opened and your life is opened.” (“What’s the point of a pilgrimage?” Fr Dwight, Patheos Catholic 10 Nov 2015).

There were many times throughout the journey that experiences and memories, locked away within me from years ago, were suddenly illuminated. I felt blessed every day to have been given the opportunity to explore my faith, to share such rich and moving encounters with friends, to remember who I am and to have time to meditate on where God is leading me. I believe we were all transformed by the experience. The trick will be how we leverage that transformation and keep moving along our pilgrimage path now that we’re back.

I miss my fellow pilgrims. On the interminable plane rides on the way over, we were moaning and groaning, but filled with excitement. On the way home, the mood was entirely different. We were exhausted and subdued. It was similar to a lazy Boxing Day with your own family when you’re just lounging around in a companionable stupor! At one point I saw Des Thomas holding a baby, allowing her weary parents a little rest, and again I got tears in my eyes and had to go to the bathroom to splash my face. Seeing him with that little one made me think of my own dad, himself gone for more than half my life, a man who never knew the joy of holding his own grandchild. I thought of him a lot while I was away and felt very close to him. I could feel his pleasure that I was there. I’m sure all 71 pilgrims had their own meaningful, personal encounters just like this one. Our busy lives at home don’t generally allow the space for this kind of introspection, but we have to make time for it. 

The theme for WYD was ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy’ (Mt 5:7). We witnessed and bestowed mercy daily, in big and small ways. I could never list them all, but here are just a few examples.

It was the emotion of our pilgrim, John Leao, when he met a priest he had long admired. And the joy he displayed upon arrival at the vigil site after walking for eight hours without a sole on his shoe.

It was the love shown to all the school students on the pilgrimage – through the constant supervision, late nights and lack of downtime for their wonderful carers, Bernadette Gibson and Erin McCort. They always went the extra mile, often to their own detriment. And all the other pilgrims who so willingly lent a hand to make sure the students stayed safe.

It was Salvatore and Silvio, our Italian guides, who made the Italian leg of our journey so memorable. “Why not?” is our new favourite rhetorical question.

It was the laughter, the companionship, the conversations and the friendship.

It was the hand on the shoulder, the random hug, the braiding of hair, the way we could read each other.

It was the care of our sick.

It was discovering new places, sharing meals and enjoying them together.

It was being in places with over a million people and feeling safe; enjoying the harmony and peace.

It was Lucy and her mum from a little village on the outskirts of Krakow who opened their homes to a sea of pilgrims to rest their legs and use the bathroom and the smiling man with a hose who showered pilgrims with refreshing water as we shuffled by; a sweating, heaving mass of humanity.

It was the chants and the smiles and high-fives of people from around the world; the joy of seeing those flags and ponchos – a sea of colour.

It was the singing, the music, the dancing in the streets, on the trams and at bus stops!

It was sitting in a circle at the end of the day and sharing our moments of grace or sadness. It was Fr Greg Barker’s gentle voice leading us in reflection.

It was celebrating Mass together in venues both majestic and humble. It was in watching our priests break open the Gospel and their hearts, and the intensity of the Eucharist. It was in the fact that we were hugging each other at the Sign of Peace by the end of the journey.

It was watching pilgrim parents with their pilgrim children, becoming ever closer as they shared this experience.

It was pilgrims offering support (physical and emotional), walking for three hours to collect food, carrying heavy packs for each other, running across car parks in a thunderstorm and soldiering on with love and laughter despite an almost broken ankle!

It was the teachers and CSO staff amongst us who referred to their students as “my kids”; who were all wonderful, devoted role models for our children in Catholic schools.

It was the support from our family, friends and the wider diocesan community.

It was seeing younger pilgrims with older pilgrims, talking and sharing their stories; drawing energy and inspiration from each other.

It was the dedication of our leadership team who made it all seem easy despite the years of planning, challenges and surprises along the way. They led with compassion, care, a good sense of direction and a much-needed sense of humour.

It was Pope Francis, the ultimate rock star and social activist; challenging, entreating and reassuring us. “Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history because life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark,” he said.

And everyone was listening.

The next World Youth Day will be held in Panama, Central America in 2019.

To read the pilgrimage blogs and see galleries of photos visit mnnews.today. To read the observations of some of the pilgrims like ‘MNnews today’ on Facebook.
To watch video blogs of the journey like ‘Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle Youth Ministry’ on Facebook.

Follow mnnews.today on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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