KRAKOW, Poland — It’s official: World Youth Day is now underway.
Thousands of pilgrims have taken over not just Krakow but many places around it, including Wadowice, the nearby hometown of St. John Paul II.
The excitement will ramp up even more with the arrival of Pope Francis on Wednesday.
Over the next week, hundreds of Krakow’s churches, and even sports arenas, will hold catechesis sessions given by some of the world’s 844 bishops and 47 cardinals who are expected to attend this week.
There will also be concerts, musical plays, a soccer championship and countless other activities — all part of World Youth Day (WYD), which isn’t actually a “day” but a weeklong youth rally.
From the moment Pope Francis shows up Wednesday afternoon until Sunday evening when he departs, he’s scheduled to deliver nine speeches and three public homilies. (During one of the days of the visit his Mass will be said privately, and he’s celebrating Wednesday’s in Rome.)
Among other activities, he’ll inaugurate a home for the elderly run by the Catholic Charity Caritas, visit the Tauron Arena, the largest WYD catechetical site for English speakers (run by the Knights of Columbus and the sisters of Our Lady of Mercy), and address the patients of a local pediatric hospital.
Here’s a short run down of the need-to-know items come July 27, as there will be too many events to keep track of them all.
Francis touches down mid-afternoon at Krakow’s airport – named, appropriately enough, for St. Pope John Paul II, whose memory looms over the city like no one else’s – but Francis has no WYD-related agenda when he arrives.
Day one features a welcoming ceremony at the airport, a speech to Polish authorities, and a behind-closed-doors Q&A with the Polish bishops in the cathedral.
The first two addresses, however, could set the political tone of the visit.
Francis has, to put it mildly, a more pro-immigrant stance than both the current government of President Andrzej Duda and the local Catholic hierarchy, despite a recent press statement from the Polish bishops that accused some politicians of “artificially creat(ing) fear of Muslims.”
Popes usually try to avoid embarrassing their hosts on their trips, but local reporters here say any reference Francis makes regarding immigration will be perceived – and, therefore, reported – as an attack on the government, in a country that has a fair bit of experience of papal slap-downs.
To give one example, during his 1991 visit to the country, Poland’s native son, John Paul II, expressed palpable disappointment at the direction the country was taking after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In his mind, after decades of struggle to keep the Catholic faith alive, the newly-freed countries from the East would reawaken the spiritual energies of the West.
In reality, however, John Paul worried that it was working the other way around – the socially permissive and rabidly consumeristic impulses of the West were washing into the East, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Francis is not St. John Paul II, and his first-ever visit to Poland won’t be a “homecoming,” but when it comes to speaking his mind about issues in which he feels a personal investment, he’s no more bashful than his legendary Polish predecessor.
In other words, it’s impossible to predict if the pope will play the role of one of the world’s savviest diplomats or that of the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, many of whom are fleeing war, persecution and hunger in Africa and the Middle East.
If he wants to lead on a gracious note, he could begin by addressing Poland’s willingness to host thousands of immigrants from other Eastern European nations.
Polls show that most migrants arriving in Europe see Germany, France and the United Kingdom as their most-desired final destinations, with Poland, in most cases, representing simply a stop on the route to get there.
Yet when it comes to internal European migration, Poland is an important destination from countries to the east: according to official statistics, of the 12,325 asylum requests the country received in 2015, the majority (7,989) came from Russia and Ukraine (2,305).
Another issue Francis might address is Poland’s alarming rates of emigration: a 2015 poll from the Polish Association of Human Resource Management (PSZK) found that 46 percent of college students want to leave the country after graduating.
As for the meeting with Poland’s bishops, the fact that it’s in private — which is unusual, if not unprecedented — could indicate he wants to address topics of tension, or disagreement, between him and them.
One item on the agenda could well be Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ post-synod exhortation on the family, which has provoked considerable grumbling from a number of the hierarchy here; another, of course, could be immigration.
The pope’s second day will be dominated by his visit to the famous Jasna Gora monastery in Częstochowa, where his ability to connect with the Polish people will be put under the microscope: this is the nation’s most important pilgrimage site, visited by millions every year.
The monastery is located some 90 miles from Krakow, and the majority of those in attendance for the pope’s visit will be Polish citizens rather than WYD pilgrims, so this is a prime opportunity for Francis to affirm Poland’s deep sense of nationhood, rooted in Marian devotion.
Crux has learned that Pope Francis’ original plan was to be helicoptered in and out, staying only long enough to venerate the famed Black Madonna of Częstochowa. But he was persuaded to celebrate a Mass that could pack considerable political and cultural punch, both for the country’s leaders and its people.
The pope will, after all, be celebrating the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland, making this a landmark national moment.
Later in the afternoon he will officially begin his participation in World Youth Day, when hundreds of thousands of young women and men from across the globe will give him a rapturous welcome in Krakow’s Blonia Park.
As a side note, it’s usually said that the youth gather to meet the pope at these events. But St. John Paul II, the founder of WYD, used to say that it’s actually the youth who invite the pope. In this case, Pope Francis has received a formal invitation from the youth to join the women and men coming from 187 countries.
Literally called the “Welcoming Ceremony,” this will be one of the most “informal” interactions between Francis and the young people, so as journalists who travel with the pope like to say: “off-the-cuff alert!”
This is one of those moments, in other words, in which Francis’ prepared texts count for relatively little, and in which he’s most likely to open up and speak from the heart.
The two key events on Friday will be Francis’ first-ever visit to the infamous Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in the morning, while in the afternoon he’ll lead young pilgrims in the prayer of the Way of the Cross.
Although he’ll deliver no address in Auschwitz, Francis will meet a group of ten Holocaust survivors, and then greet 25 “Righteous among the Nations” from all over the world. The phrase is a title bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews during the Nazi extermination.
Francis will cross under the arch of the main entrance on foot, where the words Arbeit macht frei, meaning “Work will set you free” are written. Then he’ll be taken by car to Block 11, where he’ll meet with Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, as well as the 10 survivors.
According to a Vatican spokesman, one of those survivors — an impressive 101 years old — is hosting a group of pilgrims participating in WYD.
At the Way of the Cross commemoration, given both the nature of the event and also his experiences that morning, Francis is expected to deliver his most somber and serious address of the trip, dampening some of the youthful energy and passion percolating in Krakow in order to lay down a series of moral challenges.
Saturday is a jam-packed day for the pope, including a visit to the Divine Mercy Shrine where he’ll celebrate Mass for polish priests, seminarians and Religious, hear confessions, and have lunch with a group of pilgrims.
After that, the highlight of the day will be the prayer vigil with the WYD attendees.
The topic of mercy, the main theme for the WYD, is likely to get its strongest outing on this day, making this a golden opportunity for connecting Sister Faustina, St John Paul II and his own papacy’s concern with God’s unconditional embrace of suffering and sin.
The prayer vigil will take place, appropriately, in what’s being called the Campus Misericordiae, or “Field of Mercy.” Somewhere short of two million pilgrims will walk from Krakow and adjoining cities to the vast field, which will become part of the city’s industrial compound afterwards.
In what is now WYD tradition, most pilgrims will have to walk 8 to 9 miles, and once there, they’ll pitch their sleeping bags for a mass sleep-over.
For 24 hours Campus Misericordiae will resemble an old-fashioned battlefield, with flags of different movements, dioceses and congregations fluttering in every direction, stuck into the ground in between groups of young people on plastic mats.
During the last WYD in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, back in 2013, almost three million people flocked to Copacabana beach, with Francis encouraging them to take the streets to build a “more just and fraternal society.”
Pope Francis on that occasion encouraged them to see themselves as “protagonists for change” who should offer “a Christian response to the social and political concerns present in their countries.”
On this occasion he’s likely to take some of the pressing challenges of the moment — Islamist violence, refugees, even the post-Brexit tensions in Europe — and recast them in the light of God’s mercy.
On the final day he’ll celebrate what’s known as the “Sending Mass.” Beyond the obvious significance of the Mass itself, here the pope will also issue the invitation for the next WYD, likely to take place in two or three years.
Sources point to Panama as the likely next destination. Its president, Juan Carlos Varela, a practicing Catholic who will attend the event in Krakow this week, is said to have worked to convince the bishops to host the next WYD, rather than the other way round.
A source close to WYD told Crux that the plan is to have other Central American countries be part of the week-long events, hosting pilgrims the week before for what is know as the Days in the Dioceses, which normally take place all over the hosting country.
If predictions are right, Francis will round off the closing Mass with a resounding invitation: hasta Panamá!