[Editor’s Note: Kathryn Jean Lopez was ubiquitous during World Youth Day, the international gathering of Catholic youth launched under St. Pope John Paul II, staged in Krakow, Poland, in July. Among other things, she spoke to several new members of the Dominican order about the experience and how it may shape their priesthoods going forward.

Here, Lopez speaks to Father Joseph Anthony Kress O.P., a native of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.]

Lopez: Had you ever been to WYD before? How did you find this? Was it worth the wait, or how did it measure in comparison to previous experience?

Kress: This was my first WYD, and it carried much significance for me. My grandmother, who passed away 5 years ago, was Polish, so it was very important for me to attend WYD on Polish soil. Pope Francis’s encouragement to always keep in contact and build relationships with our grandparents resonated with me because of my hereditary connection to Poland.

My experience of WYD was unique. I arrived in Poland around the same time as many of the pilgrims. Actually I traveled with the College Knights of Columbus pilgrims. I was not attached to any one group of pilgrims, so I did not embark on the typical WYD experience.

Even though I would not be considered a pilgrim, because I did not sleep in a field or wear a bright yellow credential, I shared in some of the same sacrifices of the pilgrims. Lack of sleep, simple diet, body aches, blisters on my feet and many other aspects of the pilgrim life were more than apparent in my own experience.

Through all of this, WYD was more than I could have ever expected. What I did, saw, and lived during those two weeks did not simply exceed my expectation but it was something that was never in my deck of cards. Suffice to say that there were very abundant and special graces poured upon the pilgrims, volunteers, and citizens of Krakow during those two weeks

How did you find Krakow? Did the “City of Saints” resonate? Did you have any close encounters or insights on some of the holy men and women who walked there? 

I visited Krakow once before when I was a college student studying abroad. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit much of the city. As soon as I landed in Krakow I was shipped straight to the Knights of Columbus offices and began working.

After a day or two in the office I moved to the Tauron Arena as it was undergoing its transformation into the Mercy Centre. From then on I was sequestered to the basement dungeon offices of the Tauron Arena, lol.

I wish I could have seen more of the city, but it gives me another reason to return to Krakow as soon as I can.

How present was John Paul II during the WYD days? 

VERY!!!! It was hard to not think of his smiling face around every corner. Each and every time I saw a pilgrim smile, close their eyes in prayer, or embrace a friend I was reminded of my childhood pontiff. He was everywhere, always guiding us to grow closer to Jesus. We were lucky enough to have a relic of St. John Paul II at the Mercy Centre which made his presence, protection, and intercession all the more tangible.

There were some very tender moments when I was organizing groups of pilgrims to assist in transporting the relics. Some of these pilgrims would have been quite young when St. John Paul II died. I wonder how much of his life they remember. They surely did not see the youthful and energetic Pope that I remember from my childhood (and even this was later in his pontificate – I was born in 1987).

When the pilgrims were handed the relic of St. John Paul II their faces lit up with true affection and reverence for this man! His influence on the youth of the world will not soon diminish.

As a newly ordained priest, did you have any unique insights? 

I’m not sure if I can say which insights were specific to my recent ordination, or which were specific to me being a first-timer at WYD. What I did notice was the unique combination of energy and reverence among the pilgrims.

WYD is often credited with expressing the abundant energy of the youth of the Church. Many pilgrims are encouraged to take this energy for Christ and His Church back to their parishes, family and friends.

Another aspect that was apparent was the depth of reverence that the same pilgrims expressed throughout the week. The small arena of the Mercy Centre was the place for adoration, confession, and veneration of the relics of 5 Polish saints. It is expected that this would be a place that would be somewhat juxtaposed to the high-energy of the main arena. It was just the opposite. Amid the silence and stillness there was a tremendous energy – an energy of reverence.

Watching the youth pray before the Eucharistic Lord, humbly approach His mercy in Confession, or honor the Saints of His Church was an edifying experience. Without any explicit instruction, the pilgrims were able to seamlessly/appropriately transition from a concert-like atmosphere to the threshold of heaven, sometimes without changing physical location, and without losing an ounce of energy.

Is praying with the pope a significant thing?

Praying with the Holy Father is significant for a few reasons. First, the Holy Father is the successor of St. Peter and the vicar of Christ on earth. When we pray with the Holy Father we sit at the feat of the master, we join together with the one that brings union to the entire church militant.

Secondly, it was important to pray with the Holy Father in this occasion, to see specifically how the Church on earth is united. At one point Pope Francis instructed us to join hands and pray together. A small gesture but one that is rife with meaning is a world that is “over-connected” but unattached from each other.

At the end of the Vigil the Holy Father led Eucharistic adoration and benediction. As the sun sat over Campus Miserecordiae, I looked out into the crowd of 1 million + pilgrims each with a lit candle. It was breath-taking. As the Holy Father stood in silent prayer the entire crowd united together in silent prayer. I have never been a part of such a large crowd and for this entire crowd to be silent inspired much awe and wonder.

This silence, however, was not empty. It was filled with the joy, pain, suffering, happiness, and the intentions of each and every one of the 1 million + pilgrims present. This union in silence is a lesson that the Holy Father taught many throughout the world that evening.

Did World Youth Day in Krakow change you? 

It has surely changed me. It is hard to remain the same after you have a front row seat to God’s grace in mercy. I have a deeper connection to many of the Polish saints, and I have built many friendships with Polish citizens that will continue to foster my relationship with Jesus Christ. It has been a true “religious experience.”

Such experiences help to fortify the soul and prepare one to grow deeper in union with God. This is what happened to me in Krakow. I am very lucky and blessed that it happened at the commencement of my priesthood.

Did you grow in your priesthood because of anything that happened there?

I would say that there were two experiences that helped me to grow in my priesthood.

The first is the friendships that I made with the Polish citizens. I worked mostly with a Polish production company (Concept Music Art) to transform Tauron Arena into the Mercy Centre. The vast majority of CMA were my peers. I was able to build friendships with them and get to know them and vice versa.

It was a joy to share my priesthood with them even though our origins were thousands of miles away from each other. I realized that the priesthood which I have received is to be open and available to each and every person I meet. No matter the circumstances, place of origin, or history, the love of God given to the world through the priesthood (primarily in the Eucharist and Confession) transcends all of these boundaries.

The second experience of WYD that will shape my priesthood is the Night of Mercy that we hosted on Wednesday night. I will talk more about that night later, but I would be lying if I said that that evening did not have a major impact on my priesthood.

Has the priesthood surprised you? 

One thing that has surprised me in the priesthood is the beauty of people. What I have found is that the confessional is the one place that one’s guard is let down. The majority of one’s life is spent in building a facade of what others want. Whether it is to impress others or try to convince them (or oneself) that you are something different.

But in the confessional the guard is dropped, the facade comes crumbling down. In the confessional, the penitents speak to God things that they have never and will never utter to anyone else in their life. For this reason the confessional can be a scary place for many. It means that one is vulnerable.

What most do not see, and have a hard time believing, is that only when there is no facade to lean on are they truly beautiful. Our identity is not placed in our facade of sins but in the imago dei that we have received from our Creator and the filial adoption that we have been granted through the Eternal Son, Jesus Christ. In the confessional, the true beauty of the person is revealed.

The penitent becomes vulnerable to love and mercy for the very first time. What has surprised me in the priesthood is the beauty of people and we all need to be reminded of this.

What will you never forget about your ordination day?

HAHA! All of it. The ordination itself was celestial! There are many memories that are quite personal. Some other points are more of a public nature as well.

One thing that I remember is when we began to process into the sanctuary and we saw that the Upper Church of the Basilica was filled with our friends and family. We did not expect this. It was striking to see the Basilica full to celebrate the greatness of God working in each of our lives.

Another thing I will never forget is the uncontrollable joy of that day. I could not keep from smiling that entire day.

Lastly, I remember the joy and emotions of the entire presbyterate. We had over 100 concelebrants at this mass so the kiss of peace and laying on of hands took a substantial amount of time. During each of these rites (especially the laying on of hands) I did not expect to see the other priests as emotional as they were. There were tears and even sobbing as they handed on to me all of their suffering and joys of their own priesthood when they placed their hands on my head.

It was a special moment.

What will you never forget about World Youth Day? 

I will not forget the Night of Mercy and the candle-lit vigil in a field of 1 million + pilgrims. I will never forget the pain and suffering of all of those who worked behind the scenes to make the Mercy Centre a place of encountering God. Many, if not all of these people were volunteers and will never get the credit that they deserve for the sacrifices they made to give the pilgrims a chance to meet our Lord Jesus. They have faces and names and their sacrifices were real and I was blessed to work along side all of them.

Lastly, I will never, never forget the privilege of watching God break into a person’s life for the first time. I saw it more than once during that week in Krakow.

Witnessing this reminded me of St. Augustine’s famous Book X of the Confessions, “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. … You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”