August 5 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


All thanks to St John Paul II

This is an event that has a lasting effect on those who experience it. And, as RACHEL MURRAY points out, it would not be happening were it not for the vision and imagination of one man

Packing my suitcase in my bedroom, I look through the list of essential items for World Youth Day and suddenly my eyes travel up to the image of the man who started this international witness to the Catholic Faith; St Pope John Paul II.

His wise and kindly face smiles at me from the wall above my little prayer space; he has been like a spiritual father to me throughout my life’s journey and now, this World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, would take me one step further in my encounter with the Pope who changed history for millions of young people around the world.

I set off at 2.30am from the Pastoral Centre in Dundee with my trusty suitcase, a flask of coffee and submission to the fact that there would not be much sleep tonight. I was accompanied by 37 fellow pilgrims, most of whom had never experienced a World Youth Day before.

I, having already been to Madrid in 2011, could anticipate the endurance required for this kind of pilgrimage. However, I was aware that the joy and grace with which we would return would far outweigh any hardship that might lie ahead of us. No matter what happened, this was going to be a life-changer for these young people.


Upon arrival in Poland, we settled into the buzzing square in the centre of Krakow, where we saw the thousands of other pilgrims who had gathered for the same great Catholic festival. There was a huge stage with live music and, throughout the week, it held Christian artists from around the world, playing everything from interpretive dance to Asian Gospel rap.

I was reminded of St John Paul’s Letter to Artists in which he reminded the world that each person’s creativity was an expression of ‘the inner beauty of things’ and a path to faith.

For me, with a background in theatre directing and acting, my whole passion for the arts was inspired by St John Paul’s belief that goodness could be portrayed within the arts.

Our whole personhood, with our imagination and our body, is a gift from God through which we can express the Gospel in a profound way. The performing arts play such an important part in World Youth Day celebrations. The atmosphere is like a Catholic version of T in the Park and the young people in our group responded to it with joy and enthusiasm.

It brought home immediately that World Youth Day is a fun experience as well as a spiritual one.

During the days, we gathered in a large tent for catechesis to learn more about our faith in the context of the Year of Mercy. Through these sessions, which included learning songs and actions, we grew as a family. We shared our experiences more readily with one another, motivated by the speakers who talked about the encounter with the Merciful face of God the Father through Jesus.

Many young people who had not been to confession in a long time took advantage of the availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation with priests who were standing on the periphery of the field outside.

The joy of World Youth Day is nowhere more palpable than in the encounter between young people from different countries and cultures. Walking through the streets with our food tokens in hand, in search of our next meal, we would come face to face with thousands of people from all over the world—a bright array of flags and national colours—all cheering each other’s countries and exchanging blessings, souvenirs, smiles, and high-fives!

At World Youth Day, we see the happiness of a world united with a common love and a genuine, Christ-centred kindness—a microcosm of everything that the world could be if we are really ‘Catholic,’ meaning ‘universal.’ Whilst sitting in the park with my group on my birthday, their singing prompted other pilgrims to join in Happy Birthday in their own languages, displaying the universality of the Catholic Church in the friendliest way. All of this was in stark contrast to the world that St John Paul II had witnessed there on that very soil in his own youth when Poland suffered terrible persecution under the Nazis.

One of the most poignant but painful experiences of the pilgrimage was the visit to Auschwitz concentration camp. Never before had the reality of this great evil been so vividly understood as when I walked the path of those men, women and children who were led to their death in the most brutal conditions. These were real people with families and hopes for the future that would never be fulfilled in this life.

In the midst of this darkness, the young man who would become Pope John Paul the Great, dared to dream of a better future where each person’s unique God-given identity was not only respected but necessary to leave a mark upon human history.


At the Prayer Vigil with Pope Francis in the Campus Misericordiae on the penultimate night of our trip, more than a million young people were inspired by that same vision.

The Holy Father prompted us to ‘dream’ and to ‘leave a mark on history;’ to aspire to be something more than ‘couch potatoes’ and instead to ‘trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes’ and to ‘set out on new and unchartered paths.’

Then, he invited everyone to join hands and form a human bridge across nations. This was to begin a change in the world that could start immediately with one concrete action.

Returning home to Scotland, I am left with many vivid memories, which demonstrate the truth that our Church is alive, youthful and active. I am grateful to St John Paul II for answering God’s call to set up such a life-changing phenomenon— where thousands upon thousands of young people can kneel in solidarity with candles lit before the Blessed Sacrament whilst the final rays of the evening sun wash over the huge multitude gathered in prayer for peace in our troubled world.

Let’s pray that these rays of Divine Mercy which gush forth from the heart of Jesus will allow our young people to carry many graces back home to their families and parish communities.

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