KRAKOW, POLAND—For most of those who’ve ever attended an international Catholic rally known as “World Youth Day”, the event is a spiritual adrenaline rush hard to top. For a full week, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people from all over the world meet in one city to share and celebrate their faith.
This year, when Pope Francis and millions of youth from over 180 countries meet in Krakow, Poland, they’ll also face a reality check: In the shadow of Auschwitz, a place synonymous with religiously motivated hatred, pilgrims will be reminded that 200 million people around the world today are being persecuted, killed, forced out of their homes and countries, or imprisoned for their faith.
Although the Vatican hasn’t released the official calendar yet, it’s known that Francis’ five-day trip to the land of St. John Paul II will include a visit to Auschwitz, history’s most infamous concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1 million people, including Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and French were killed by the Nazi regime between 1940 and 1944.
“Pope Francis couldn’t not go to Auschwitz, which is such a strong symbol of suffering as part of our lives,” said Father Piotr Studnicki, one of the spokesmen of the diocese of Krakow.
Studnicki told Crux that during the Friday of World Youth Day, Francis will provide a way of interpreting that historical nightmare.
“In the morning he’ll encounter this suffering that seems to have no response, why did this happen, and why does it continue to happen?” he said on Thursday. “Then, in the afternoon, during the celebration of the Way of the Cross he will show us that if there is an answer, it’s in Jesus, who carried the Cross for us and defeated death.”
Francis’ stop in Auschwitz is bound to be one of the hallmarks of his visit to Poland, but in truth, the great majority of the two million pilgrims expected to participate in Krakow’s July 26-31 World Youth Day, won’t be able to make the trip to the concentration camp themselves.
This is why the organizers of the gathering are working hard to guarantee that pilgrims will have the opportunity to encounter the reality of Catholics living in places where Christians are persecuted, such as Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.
“In the context of a celebration of faith, of presenting the joy of Christianity, it’s very important not to stray too far away from real life,” Studnicki said.
Christians, he said, live with joy because of their faith, even in moments of hardship, but there are hardships today that most have never encountered.
In recent months several countries, including the United States, have declared that terrorist organization ISIS is perpetrating genocide against Christians and other minorities in Syria, while religious leaders have warned that if the bloodshed continues, Christianity might disappear from the region in the near future.
“It’s for this reason, I believe, that we need to find the space and time for them to share their realities, because they represent a very current reality in the life of the Church,” he said.
Organizers aren’t yet sure how this will happen, but just that it will.
“We want to show all the faces of the Church,” said Dorota Abdemoula, spokeswoman for the event. “This is why we want to highlight the reality of the persecuted Church.”
Abdemoula told Crux that with the help of the Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, which focuses its work in countries where Christians are persecuted, they’re working on a musical show that will be shown during the Youth Festival, a religious, artistic and cultural program takes place in the afternoons and evenings during the first four days of the gathering.
The idea is to also help those coming from Syria, Iraq, Palestine or South Sudan to meet some of the 1,200 bishops from around the world that will participate in the gathering to create consciousness of the problem among the hierarchy.
Last but not least, the organizers of World Youth Day are also working on including some of these witnesses in what is known as the “main events,” meaning the five open-air massive activities, four of which include the pope’s presence.
World Youth Day is an initiative created by Pope John Paul II and late Argentine Cardinal Eduardo Pironio. They’re celebrated yearly in every diocese, but every two or three years, young people from around the world and the pope meet in one city.
The last was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013. The last two days of that event, which included a prayer vigil and a Mass, gathered a crowd estimated at three million people on Copacabana beach.