KRAKOW, Poland— Walking around the streets of Krakow ahead of World Youth Day, the largest regular Catholic gathering in the world, one can find hundreds of reminders that the whole Catholic world is focused here.
On Friday morning for instance, a group of volunteers were rehearsing an act to be performed once Pope Francis gets here, with colorful flags in front of Krakow’s apostolic palace, to the tune of Mission Impossible.
It seems like a fitting soundtrack, since staying on top of everything that’s going on during any given papal trip in the Francis era is hard to achieve. Considering that hundreds of thousands of young women and men from 187 countries are flying into Krakow to participate, it feels like the one mission Ethan Hunt, the star of the Mission Impossible franchise, would fail.
For instance, also on Friday, fifty feet from where the volunteers were rehearsing, six members of the US-based Women’s Ordination Conference were holding an event, with signs in Polish about St. Mary Magdalene calling her an “apostle and priest.”
Although most of them will be gone by the time WYD beings, they’re currently in Krakow holding their annual meeting. They were standing next to Franciszkanska 3, the archbishop’s residence where Pope Francis will stay during his visit to Poland, hoping they’d be welcomed by Krakow’s Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.
A few blocks from there, in Krakow’s main square, several stages are being set up for what will be the side events of WYD, meaning all the activities that won’t include Pope Francis and that although they’ll be open to all the pilgrims, will never have a million people attending: A Youth Festival, the language-organized catechesis that will be delivered by the 800 bishops attending, and so on.
Krakow’s famous Wawel Cathedral, the beating heart of Polish Catholicism, is already being prepped to host Francis’ encounter with the local bishops on Wednesday, which if history is to be taken into account, could become a key element of the news cycle.
In recent trips, the pope has been openly critical and highly demanding of the local episcopacy, and considering that some of the key social elements of his papacy- protection of the environment and migration- have found strong resistance in Poland, it’s bound to be a strong address.
Close to the cathedral, at the intersection of two streets called Sw Jana (St. John) and Sw Tomasza (St. Thomas), the Church of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist is getting ready to welcome the pope, who’s expected to pray at the tomb of Blessed Zofia Czeska, founder of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin.
Not far from there, a hotel decided to open up its rooms in what will arguably be the year’s best week for the tourism industry, to offer free lodging to volunteers coming from all over Latin America.
In total, there will be 23,000 volunteers helping out throughout the week, easily recognizable by their blue t-shirts and backpacks. Thousands of them come from all around the world, and they are already roaming the streets of Krakow getting acquainted with the city’s layout, to guarantee they can help the pilgrims reach the sites of the main events.
In their spare time, some of them are visiting Wadowice, the birthplace of St. John Paul II, visiting his home which was turned into a museum, or enjoying impromptu moments of prayers led by random groups on the small stage set up for the English language catechesis that will take place here.
Other volunteers, many of them local, are walking through Krakow’s old town carrying signs with what they describe as “the four elements of the Gospel,” meaning a heart, the arithmetic symbol of division, a cross, and a question mark.
Explaining them to Crux, one of the volunteers from Slovenia, said the heart represents God’s love, the mathematical element the concept of sharing one’s faith, the cross Jesus’ great sacrifice and all its ramifications. The question mark is intended to call the pilgrims to think about what all this means to them.
But WYD is not only happening in Krakow and neighboring Wadowice: All around Poland, thousands of pilgrims are participating in the “Days in the Dioceses,” a pre-gathering event that works like a missionary week, with the youth participating in several charitable events.
Taking place between July 20-25, every diocese in the country, 41 Roman Catholic and 2 Greek Catholic, are all hosting pilgrims in what’s described by organizers “as an invitation to discover the richness of the local church and the country’s hospitality.”
Yet these days are not the only charitable initiatives of WYD. After all, Poland is famous for its solidarity- beyond the political party- which helped the nation and other eastern European countries regain their freedom in the late 1980s and 1990s.
To help hundreds of pilgrims who can’t afford the plane ticket, two projects, both organized by the local committee, are currently being put forth. One of them is the “solidarity fund,” built from donations made from every one of the more than 350,000 pilgrims who’ve registered. Thousands have benefited from this fund over the years, as it’s been part of the registration in many other WYDs.
Then there’s the “Buy a ticket for a brother” campaign, directed at helping young women and men from Eastern European countries, such as Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Moldovia participate in the youth gathering often described as the Catholic Olympics.
Yet all these activities are nothing but a small glimpse of what World Youth Day is about.