Sister Mary Elizabeth Albers recently returned to the United States from her pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. She accompanied the St. Ann’s Mission youth group from Belcourt, North Dakota along with Sister Kateri Marie Benedicta of the Cross Burbee. The following article chronicles her journey and highlights some of the amazing experiences their group had throughout the week.
In his final words to the roughly 1.5 million pilgrims attending the closing Mass at Campus Misericordiae on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland, Pope Francis expressed a theme that ran like a golden thread through the World Youth Day experience for so many: “How much [the Lord] wants his word to be able to speak to you day after day, so that you can make his Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a [GPS] for you on the highways of life!” Those of us who had traveled from the SOLT mission on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota listened to the English translation of the Holy Father’s words—coming through a loud speaker owned by a very prayerful and boisterous group from Los Angeles—with particular attention and gratitude.
Each morning of the nine-day pilgrimage, our group of 14 would rise with only one clear expectation for the day: the Lord was to be our “tour guide” during this entire experience, and as much as we strove to do our part in the planning, inevitably his Providence was the only thing upon which we could depend.
This theme began to take shape for us when a six-hour bus ride from Prague to Krakow turned into a nine-hour scenic tour through the Czech Republic. Upon arriving in Krakow on Monday evening, we were immediately introduced to what an influx of almost one million pilgrims would mean in a city with a population of 760,000. Buses and trams were re-routed at the last minute, and clinging to the backpack of the person in front of you was oftentimes the only way to keep the group together amidst the large-scale crowds at papal events. Yet the words we consistently heard from the youth in our group—and the elders as well—was how wonderful it was to be here, together, in the “city of saints,” as a part of the vibrant and joyful and almost incomprehensibly peaceful Body of Christ.
One of the great graces of a time of pilgrimage is that the Lord will often “pull back the veil,” so to speak, on his mysterious designs, making it easier to glimpse the degree to which he holds all people and situations in his hands, despite what might appear to be insurmountable obstacles. On Wednesday, a last-minute side trip to Wawel Cathedral—the place where St. John Paul II celebrated his first Mass as a priest, where he was ordained a bishop and where he served as Archbishop of Krakow from 1967 until his election to the papacy in 1978—turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we exited the tram near Wawel, we were hopeful that the crowds would be lighter at the Cathedral since this was the first day that Catechesis was being offered. But seeing more people than usual lined up against barriers on the street, we soon discovered that Pope Francis would be traveling by in the “popemobile” within the hour. One of the elders in our group was overcome with emotion; seeing the Holy Father in person was the sole desire she had for herself on the pilgrimage. After Pope Francis passed by, she remarked, “It seemed like time slowed down during those few moments. I could get on the plane to go home right now, I’m so happy!”
On Thursday, we traveled to Auschwitz, where nearly 1.1 million people were killed during World War II, and Wadowice, the birthplace of St. John Paul II. On the bus ride, Sister Kateri told the story of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), giving her as an example of one who embraced the plan of God, uniting herself with the sufferings of Christ, even to the point of death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And although it had been sunny and warm up until that day, the rain began to pour as we waited to enter Auschwitz I, where St. Maximilian Kolbe had offered his life so that a Polish army sergeant with a wife and children would not suffer the same fate as so many who were murdered there.
The group was markedly quieter on the ride from Auschwitz to Wadowice, recognizing how little can be said in the face of such evil. The Lord, in his tender mercy, gave us sunshine on the drive, and by the time we reached the birthplace of perhaps one of the greatest saints in history, a sense of hope began to emerge. As we stood amidst singing pilgrims in the square in front of St. John Paul II’s childhood home and toured the beautiful little church not 20 feet away and pressed our rosaries to the baptismal font where Karol Wojtyla had received the gift of new life in Christ, we experienced a new closeness with the man who had embraced the grace of God amid tremendous personal suffering and experiences of evil, such that he was open to encounter the Lord in any and all circumstances.
The witness of St. John Paul II inspired us to a deeper trust in the Lord and in the intercession of the Blessed Mother throughout our pilgrimage. A line which we later learned lasted for two hours to enter the Cathedral where Mass would be celebrated in five minutes became an opportunity to experience the power of prayer and the mercy of the Father as our group was whisked past the ropes and ushered into a tiny side-chapel for Mass. One of the youth in our group was especially touched by this Mass—sung entirely in Polish—and listed it as his highlight for the day. An hour-long trip to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary located on the grounds of the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, where St. Faustina became the “Apostle of Mercy,” only to find the buildings closed, provided the chance to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet in the courtyard between statues of Jesus and St. Faustina, as if in that original dialogue. Being shut out of a premier event and concert at the arena for Catechesis facilitated an encounter with a group of lively Scottish pilgrims leading songs on the tram ride home, which most of our youth were still talking about days later. The “chance” encounter of Sr. Mary Peter and Sr. Mary Rachel with Fr. James Kelleher and Deacon John Purk led to Mass at the Carmelite Church of the Visitation, bringing together 45 pilgrims from six different SOLT missions.
By the time we began hiking to the site of the closing Mass, there was a sense of expectation as to how we would encounter the Lord along the way. Even when our group was kept from entering our assigned section because it had been deemed full, several of the youth and adults shifted into prayer mode, quietly praying “Memorares” until we were inexplicably allowed to enter amidst a larger Polish group. Our faith was tested when a two-hour wait for the sacks containing all the food we would need for the next 24 hours yielded nothing. But we were surprised and humbled when the Chilean pilgrims camped next to us gave us more than enough sausages and bread to sustain the hike back.
In the quiet moments of prayer between events—which were relatively few!—the overwhelming sentiment in my heart was one of gratitude. At the core team meeting in Belcourt the day before departing, our prayer had been that each one of the pilgrims in our group would encounter Jesus in whatever way he desired to meet them. And although we also prayed to be free of the desire to witness those encounters firsthand, the Lord in his mercy gave us plenty of opportunities to see his love for each person in our group, ourselves included. In his homily at the closing Mass, Pope Francis put it so simply: “Dear young people, you have come to Krakow to meet Jesus.” Thank you, Jesus, for calling us to meet you there!