As we approach the official start of the World Youth Day (WYD) festivities in Kraków, Poland, it is important to remember that this is not the first WYD to be hosted in the predominately Catholic country.
Twenty-five years ago Saint John Paul II led over one and a half million young people from around the world in prayer before the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Częstochowa. It was a watershed moment that opened up new connections among people and sought to unite a divided world recovering from the effects of communism.
The international celebration took place only two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of an independent Poland. By the time the newly formed government was established, they only had a year to prepare for a million people who would flock to their country.
John Paul II deliberately chose Poland for WYD, because he knew that his home country and the surrounding territories needed an extra boost of unity. The theme for that year was, “You have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom 8:15) It was through this theme that John Paul II wanted everyone to unite together in calling God, “Abba, Father,” and recognizing that we are all sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.
At the concluding Mass, John Paul II renewed his desire for unity and challenged the young people to work for a “civilization of love.”
“A great joy fills my heart in seeing you together, young people from the East and West, North and South, united by the faith in Christ, who is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Heb 13:8). You are the youth of the Church, which is ready to face the new millennium. You are the Church of tomorrow, the Church of hope!
Dear young people, you know through experience that the collapse of the ideology of Eastern European countries has left the feeling of a great vacuum in many of your companions, the impression of having been deceived, and a depressing anguish in the face of what is to come.
Even in Western European countries, a great many young people have lost their motivation for living…In the struggle for good, apathy in politics betrays in many people the sense of helplessness.
You are sent forth as messengers of the Good News of salvation for these brothers and sisters…You will extend an invitation to all those who have been disappointed with the earthly tasks of civilization; together with you they will be creators of the ‘civilization of love.’”
Additionally, John Paul II mentioned why he chose the shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. He invoked the imagery of the Book of Revelation and explained how the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” was a sign that opposed the serpent who sought to “deprive mankind of his adoptive sonship.” The Blessed Virgin is the one who unites us and reminds us of our common heritage as adopted sons and daughters of a loving God.
The effects of this WYD were indeed felt not only in Poland, but also across Europe. It did much to break down barriers that once existed and helped heal old wounds, especially among the young people.
Now we return to Poland, this time at the shrine of Mercy in Kraków. Pope Francis chose for this WYD the theme “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” and greets a world divided, not by the walls of communism, but by the walls of hatred. Let us be attentive to our shepherd’s words this next week and listen to his remedy that he will offer to young people. They are the ones who have the power to end this cycle of division and work together to finally establish a “civilization of love.”