"We decided we must finish what we started. Fear could not win."
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Of the more than a million people who poured into Krakow to celebrate World Youth Day 2016 last week, a youth group from La Jolla, CA, may have been the most grateful of all to be there.
The 10 teenagers and seven adults, led by youth leader Bob Schrimpf, were on their way to Krakow via Munich, Germany. While upstairs in the Hofbrauhaus (a famous beer hall next to the popular Olympia-Einkaufszentrum shopping mall) a deadly shooting broke out, followed by chaos. “Someone was shot outside and another person yelled ‘he’s got a gun,'” recalls Schrimpf, who remembers hearing a few short pops and then semi-automatic gunfire.
Members of the youth group were in different places when it happened — some in the bathroom, others on the stairs. Eighteen year-old Julia Albanez could think of only one thing to do. “While hiding under the tables in the Hofbrahaus, waiting in fear if the shooter would come upstairs, all I could think about doing was praying to God,” she says. “I prayed the Our Father, over and over and over. I’m not sure if it was because I was thinking that this moment would be the last of my life, but it helped me calm down and give me clarity in the darkest time of my life.”
After being on lock down, the group was finally reunited in their hotel around 2:00 a.m., still rattled after a terrifying walk back. They began processing what had happened and discussing what to do next.
“We shared how we felt, and what was going on in our minds and hearts…” says Schrimpf. “We also prayed — there were victims and families and a terrorist (we didn’t know how many) that all needed our prayers.”
But the big question was: do they continue on or head home?
“We decided to take it one day at a time. Our next stop was Prague and we left the next morning. We shared more, prayed more. We asked if anyone wanted to leave. We discovered that we were bonded and stronger as a whole than any one person,” Schrimpf says.
“We put on brave faces, but I assure you, we jumped more than once whenever we heard a car backfire or a girl screaming in excitement at seeing friends. In the end, we decided we must finish what we started. Fear could not win.”
Andrea Albanez, 18 (twin sister of Julia), says there were moments she wondered if she should continue. But over the next couple of days, as they discussed feeling insecure about their safety, one of the parents in the group went to the WYD website, searching for information on the event and its safety measures. “She read a quote to us explaining how, in a time now where there is suffering and hatred all around us, what better time to come together and show the world there is still hope and people still believing in Christ?” recalls Andrea. “After hearing that, I felt that I must continue on with my group, to not let fear win and stop us from finishing what we set out to do.”
Viviana Vasquez, 18, says she avoided calling home right after the incident because she thought her mom would convince her to come home. “I was sure that when I heard her voice I would jump on the next plane to San Diego,” she said. “But after talking to my family and hearing about all the prayers and fasting they and so many others were doing, I realized I’d never felt more loved in my life! It gave me more strength and confidence to carry on and peace with whatever else God had in store for us on this pilgrimage.”
Schrimpf says he was impressed. “This was terrifying and traumatic yet there they were giggling and laughing two days later. Moving on, always with a shadow, but brave faces all.” The experience intensified their pilgrimage and made it that much more personal.
“We knew then we were not just on a field trip,” says Schrimpf. “Life is serious and there are serious problems out there and we are by no means the only ones suffering. We saw an Iranian flag and realized they live this daily. And of course the murder of Father Jacques in France — terrible. But we thought. ‘God has a plan. We survived and we are here. Let’s find out why.'”
The teens in the group say their World Youth Day experience was profound and they would do it again if they could.
Sixteen-year-old Lily Rice says what made it special for her was the overwhelming amount of love and support the community had for them. “Once we got to Kraków I felt so safe and welcomed. It was incredible to know we were a small part in such an amazing and joyful event. We have been through quite a bit this pilgrimage, but leaving today I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing. The hardships we faced opened my heart to God’s great mercy in the end.”
Nicole Shanks, 17, agrees. “I’m so glad I continued… Getting to express my faith with millions of other people is rare and the pope has the ability to light a fire under the youth of the Church and call us to action. Despite the journey being hard, if I had to do it over again I would without a doubt.”
Viviana says being part of WYD and sharing their story showed how their experience in Munich had a purpose. “I feel like we are all a representation of what Pope Francis is calling us to be– a proud generation of Catholics ready to stand up for our faith and ready to not let fear keep us from the love of Christ.”
Andrea says her own experience can be summarized in one word: joy. “I hope to bring the joy and mercy I’ve learned about and witnessed this week wherever I go and to all the endeavors I will encounter in my life.”
Devany Harrell, 18, says she leaves WYD with a greater sense of the Catholic community all over the world. “I have a greater desire to go out and share my faith and live it out in my everyday life. Pope Francis really made the point that the youth are important in the Church and that was really refreshing…it gives me courage to go out and do something with my faith.”
For 17-year-old Ana Szymanski, the highlights of the pilgrimage came from the Masses celebrated by Fr John Amsberry, a priest from Portland, OR, traveling with their group.
“Most of what I’m going to take home from WYD 2016 came from his homilies. For example, he was saying how mercy (from misericordia) means to relieve the misery of another person’s heart. In preparing for this trip, I was really hoping to get a better understanding of what mercy really is … I learned a lot from Fr. John, and because I understood this, I had the key for understanding what the pope has been saying.”
As for Schrimpf, the group’s fearless leader throughout the eventful pilgrimage, he says he leaves his sixth WYD with a certain awe about the resilience of the teens. “I see them laughing and chatting even re-reading the pope’s messages on their phones and they seem normal. I think that’s because they are normal and what they went through doesn’t define who they are. Last year in our ministry we had a theme: ‘You won’t know who you are until you know whose you are.’ They know they are God’s and there is a certain sense of worth and value in knowing that. There is no fear. No condemnation. Just eternal hope that Christ is our loving Savior who calls us to be his ambassador’s here on earth and that he’ll never leave us. That makes me smile.”