Let me tell you there were quite a few steps taken overall! I lost count. Someone recorded 50,000 steps one day, so we were getting plenty of exercise.
Visiting these beautiful places where we could feel close to the saints, like St Mark’s resting place under the cathedral in Venice, St Anthony in his resting place in the church in Padua, St Augustine’s place of baptism in Milan, St Francis and St Clare and all the beautiful places around Assisi they lived and worked and now rest, the peacefulness of Cascia and St Rita’s resting place; the Polish saints, St Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, St Faustina, St Albert Chmielowski, St Stanislaus, St Konga, St Raphael Kalinowski and of course St John Paul II, the man who began World Youth Day many years ago. Then there are the stories of these saints and all that they endured, proclaimed and espoused in the name of God’s kingdom. It is definitely a very humbling experience to realise that you are a small part of this rich heritage.
For me the day spent at the shrines of St John Paul II and St Faustina was a real highlight, and walking the footsteps of St John Paul II. We walked about 14 kms that day but it didn’t feel like it. We caught a tram to the shrine of St John Paul II, and it was very busy with great crowds. We took our time and walked through the church, spending quiet time in prayer. We could see the garment he was wearing, still with blood on it, when there was an assassination attempt on his life in 1981.
He also forgave the man who shot him a few years later. Some of the young people in our pilgrimage could not understand why he would have done this. They kept saying, “Why would he would forgive this man who tried to kill him? We talked about him being an incredible man who would have wanted to do what God requires us all to do, ‘forgive those who trespass against you’ even when it seems difficult to do so.
Not long after we were walking to the next shrine and we heard music. There was a group of South Americans starting to sing and dance outside the church. Some of our group joined in and we all cheered. It was a great example of the love and joy of the Lord spilling over.
I had seen St John Paul II when I was a young person and travelled to Rome; he had waved at me as I called out to him. I remember that there were posters lining the streets of a recent trip he had taken to South America with him saying- “El amour E Mas Fuerte” which means “love conquers all”.
It was incredible to hear about him over the years and his many pilgrimages as the most travelled Pope, always with an incredible love for the youth. I had seen him in Randwick when he came to Sydney and I had read a book my mum gave me as a young person, all about his life.
He was an actor also writing plays, an outdoors man, he had suffered persecution as a young man in occupied Poland and then studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary in Krakow. He also used to sit in his house as a child and look out at the square in Wadowice, seeing the statue and sign below which read, “Time flees - eternity dwells”. This made him think about what was important in life, and in time, about working for souls for God. When he was a young priest and it was forbidden to gather with his congregation, he would take them to the hills of Kalwaria, saying Mass, and tell them not to call him “Father”, but “Uncle”, so as to not arouse suspicion.
He didn’t really want to become Pope. He probably liked the idea of going back to his homeland and continuing as Cardinal Wotylwa, continuing to go hiking in the hills near Kalwaria Zebrydowska- a replica of “Calvary” for people to visit who could not travel to the Holy Land. This is the place in the hills that his father would take him after his mother died when he was 9 and then his brother a few years later. By the time of the Second World War his father also died and not long after he began his study for the priesthood.
The Polish are so proud of their saint Pope, John Paul II. I learned when we attended his museum in Wadowice, which has been set up in his former home, that he travelled many times to this Poland as Pope. About 12 in all. He clearly loved his homeland and returned whenever he could.
Many of us were amazed at the manner, kindness and warmth of the Polish people. They are very like the Irish in their openness and kindness towards others. When locals were asked they said they were thrilled to have the pilgrims in their country, celebrating World Youth Day week, bringing the joy, enthusiasm and love of God. Poland is predominantly Catholic and has a high Mass attendance rate, about 50%.
Pilgrimage is definitely a unique experience; although we can be involved in our faith we could not have anticipated the flow-on effect of saying "yes" to this opportunity. There are things that are very hard to quantify but for me it has been an incredibly enriching experience for my faith and faith journey. It has, if anything, shown me more blessings in this faith which I see it as even more anchored and enriched by the sacrifice of the Mass every day, the places of holy people and history of our church, and by other members of the universal church.
My daughter Clare found that it has opened her eyes to the universality of our church and how enormous it is! It will definitely make a difference to both of us for the future. It resonates that it is about “love”; loving God, self and others. That’s my take home message.
If I can give my children anything in this life it would be the gift of knowing how their faith can sustain and support them; that God loves them. Being closer to your faith and God means you don't have so far to go when there is a need.
Bronwyn wrote a poem after our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Tinny, tinkling, rustling leaves
Trees are speaking,
As if talking of the lives that lived
"It's ok, we now rest in peace" they say,
No hurt to become part of us,
No more can we feel the pain,
That those dwelling in the body-world can.
The forest trees of waiting and the dread
Of knowing it is not the ease of life
Ahead of us, but looming still,
The unknown and fearful anxiety.
The stones that we stumble and struggle to walk over
Must carry the sweat of our memory
They have the same dust that we tasted and know
Of the terrors, that made our lives end.
It is life that takes and wants and pains,
When what was uppermost has become none.
The green peace you see is the quiet of our souls,
As we rest, no more burdened or pained of life.
Be still as you remember us,
Think only love, not fear or angst.
It is the peace of deity we live
And feel forevermore.