From July 25 to 31, thousands of people gathered in Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016, whose theme was “Blessed are the Merciful for They Shall Receive Mercy.” Among them was a friar stationed in Boston who submitted a description about some of the meaningful aspects of his experience.
I met Paella Mistelli, 21, and her brother Nick, 18 — both from the community of St. John, Loreto, Texas — in front of St. Bernadine of Siena Church, Krakow, on the first day of my pilgrimage, which was organized and led by David Suess from Connecticut. David was accompanied by his three young children, Joseph, Joshua, and Elizabeth, and their friend, Max. He also sponsored me and three friars of the Immaculate Conception Province and two sisters to attend WYD 2016 in Poland.
Paella had attended WYD twice before. The first WYD she attended was in Brazil in 2013, where she experienced the “turning point” in her faith journey, as she recalled. She was away from the Church, but the faith and hospitality of the poor host family she stayed with led her to encounter the Lord. Not only the extra mile of the host family, but also their suffering, poverty, joy and faith in God invited her to return to the Lord. She questioned her comfortable lifestyle and compared it with the living conditions of her host family. That is the reason why she decided to attend the second WYD with her younger brother.
Paella’s “turning point” is also my own “turning point,” which I encountered with my host family in Poland, where suffering, endurance, hospitality, love and faith are intermingled in the family’s story. The host family lives half a block from the bishop’s house where Pope Francis stayed while he was in Poland.
Sharing and Learning
My “turning point” is germinated by the suffering and joy of my hosts — Michalina Proszkowiec, who is 75, and her blind son, Marian, 51.
Six Franciscan pilgrims from my group shared the one bathroom in her house and had no Internet and no washing machine. The living room was transformed into a bedroom for four friars and one, Br. Gabriel, slept voluntarily on the floor. It was kind of blessing for me to have my own bed, adjusting from the couch of 7’ x 3’. Another room, Michalina’s bedroom, which was offered to the two sisters, had only one bed measuring 8’ x 7’.
However, witnessing the poverty and suffering did not keep us blind to Michalina’s faith, love and hospitality. She carried the torch of love in sharing that she had taken care not only of her blind son, but also her elder son, who became blind at seven-years-old and passed away at 47. I asked her how she could handle such a highly demanding task daily and her answer was simple — love and faith, which have been the foundational stones for her to stay in her own house for the last 51 years. She hardly leaves the house for more than an hour for Mass or for groceries.
My “turning point” did not take place only in the house, but also in the streets — at Blonia Park and at the Campus Misericordiae with the young people. Every street corner in Krakow was lively, filled the presence of the young who sang and danced, who clapped hands while walking and cheering, who constantly greeted one another with joy, and who exchanged gifts and embraced one another with delight.
One of the most touching moments for me was that all of them longed to meet Pope Francis. They waited hours after hours in the streets and 90-degree heat just to glimpse the pope has he passed by, and to listen attentively to his message at night at the window of St. John Paul Home. They walked joyfully five miles to Campus Misericordiae to attend the vigil and the concluding Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. They slept in the open air and warmed one another by sharing their faith stories. Their hearts carried them through the cool vigil night.
Encountering Divine Mercy
As one of three million pilgrims, I walked 10 miles every day back and forth from the host family’s home to Blonia Park, to the adoration tent, and to catechist. At the concluding Mass at the Campus Misericordiae it was a 16-mile walk for both ways. Both of my feet were sore with blisters. My typical day as a pilgrim began with morning prayer, catechesism, holy hour, and gatherings with youth groups at Blonia Park, where the opening Mass, the welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis, and the Stations of the Cross took place.
On Saturday, July 30, roughly 30,000 young U.S. pilgrims gathered with American bishops for Mass, which was celebrated by Bishop Kurtz. The homily, given by Bishop Caggiano, encouraged pilgrims to “not to be afraid to do the extraordinary.”
The theme of WYD 2016, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy,” was enveloped in 66 miles of walking in six days and the heart’s depth of the host family, the optimism of the young people, the “turning point” of Paella, the generosity of David, the North Korean orphan, and mostly, the act of Pope Francis who took the local tram, running the logo of “your heart should be a tram to open to everyone,” to travel to Blonia Park from the Bishop House for the welcoming ceremony. All of these, for me, were peak moments of experiencing the Divine Mercy.
The providence of the Lord placed me at the moments and locations where His Divine Mercy captured my heart and mind with joy and suffering. The land of mercy and the warm hospitality of the Polish people via their faith, even at Auschwitz, have opened the door for all young pilgrims to encounter Divine Mercy.
In all, the joyful voice of the Psalmist, “in him do our hearts find joy” (Ps 33), is revealed clearly and tremendously in the cheerfulness of the young people at WYD 2016. “You are very merciful” (Jdt 16:15), thus we “cry to God with shouts of joy” (Ps 47).
— Fr. Khoa, a native of Vietnam, is stationed at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. Last year, he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a friar.