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Too old for the craic in Cracow?

“’For you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.’ I had often heard these words of Psalm 62, but now I had a new understanding as I walked home from the Pope’s mass at World Youth Day in 30 degree heat, impossible humidity and thunderstorms.” So writes Brendan McManus SJ, and the author of Redemption Road which he wrote about his experience of walking over 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago. This year he was on the pilgrim trail again, as a Magis16 leader and participant in World Youth Day in Cracow. Here’s a taste of what he experienced, in an edited version of the final section of his next publication.

World Youth Day: Getting too old for the craic in Cracow?

“For you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.”I had often heard these words of Psalm 62, but now I had a new understanding as I walked home from the Pope’s mass at World Youth Day in 30 degree heat, impossible humidity and thunderstorms. Alone, I was drinking everything that the kindly Poles along the road were offering: water in jars, cups, from taps and hoses. Anything. I had ceased worrying if it was treated- this was a survival situation on the edge of heat exhaustion… A very difficult walk: crowds of people slowed to a snail’s pace, ominous thunderstorms, intermittent downpours and humidity all worked to intensify the thirst, the sense of claustrophobia and the never ending boiling, hard road. So badly dehydrated was I, it looked like I would miss the flight home. However, I was to understood in a new way the ‘thirst for God’, not as a poetic image or romantic idea, but as an inherent desire for that which sustains us and an essential part of who we are.

It had been a challenging year as I was recovering from a broken kneecap and come the summer I was in bad need of a holiday and some time off. Before that happened however, I was to accompany another Irish Jesuit, Niall Leahy, who had organised a group of young adults to go to World Youth Day (WYD) in Poland, the international youth event for Catholics that sees the presence of Pope Francis at the key liturgies. Prior to this huge event which would attract several million, there was a smaller Jesuit event called MAGIS. It’s a Latin word used by Ignatius often translated as ‘more’ but which means ‘deeper’ in the sense of a reflective moment to become aware of where God is leading, and make decisions accordingly. This is spiritual preparation for WYD based on Ignatian spirituality and that gives them Ignatian tools for prayer, sharing and worship.

So it was that one Friday morning in July we met as a group in Dublin airport’s high tech Terminal 2, a fully automated check in that presumes a high level of cognitive functioning that was unavailable to me at that unearthly hour BC (before coffee). Eventually we made it through the various hoops, checks and advertising campaigns. During the few hours stopover in Amsterdam we shared the airport’s common prayer space with a few curious Muslims. Later, in Warsaw we walked out of arrivals and were whisked off by our Jesuit MAGIS contact by bus to the city of Lodz, in the centre of Poland. A University campus was to be the venue for the introductory days of our MAGIS programme. This was really well organised and after some queueing (we were to do a lot of this) we were presented with our identity badges, MAGIS hoodies and t-shirts. Accommodation was simple in the shared student rooms. There was very high security as would be the case at all our events, as I found out when I went to use the facilities without my official badge: a young soldier berated me until an older guard pointed out my wrist ID, and I was let through.

It wasn’t long before the PA system was cranked up with praise and worship songs that were led by two presenters who were more akin to dance instructors. They taught us the MAGIS chant, gestures and movements. As befitting a youth event, it was all very high energy, high volume and featured lots of flag waving, dancing, hand clapping and running around (I was thinking ‘I’m getting too old for this craic’!). All the events, from morning and evening prayer, the Mass, and worship were held in an outdoor all weather pitch, and fortunately the weather mostly cooperated. The head of the Jesuits world-wide, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, was unable to be personally present due to an accident but addressed us by video on the importance of the ‘experiments’, testing experiences similar to those in Jesuits formation, that we would undertake over the next few days.

A central part of the MAGIS programme, the ‘experiment’ had young people broken up into small groups of around 20-30, and sent off to a range of locations in Poland and the neighbouring countries. The activities ranged included walking, dance, art, theatre, service and social placements. The key Ignatian elements of daily prayer, silence/reflection, the Examen and the MAGIS circle (faith sharing in the group) were used to help people process this experience; to notice where they were finding God, and to share this with others. I was signed up on the walking pilgrimage in south west Poland. This time I was going as a participant and not as a leader as I would normally do and my rehabilitated knee was largely untested, so there were a lot of unknowns. However, I was excited and worked up as we sat on the ground with the other group members from Portugal, Belgium, Slovakia, Holland and Ireland. Firstly, we introduced ourselves and afterwards our Polish leaders Magda and Wojciech SJ briefed us on what was ahead.

The following day we were deposited at the edge of a huge pine forest after several hours’ bus journey through striking meadows, forests and endless plains. During the journey, Wojciech SJ had called all the four Jesuits on the bus together and we were allocated various parts of the spiritual programme. I was delighted to be able to help out with the Masses and explaining the Examen. After a night in a simple hostel, the next day we began walking in the Snieznik Mountains, a mountain range in the Eastern Sudetes on the border of the Czech Republic. Our Polish guides had warned us that the first day would be very tough and mostly uphill. Out of condition, I labored at the back of this group of young and fit twenty year olds. It took me two days just to get into the rhythm; to being able to walk all day, labouring up huge hills, getting rained on regularly, sharing rooms with others, and showering in cramped hostels (we spent one night in tents). I kept hearing the negative inner voice “You are getting too old for this craic”, but knew enough to disregard it. To counter balance that was the somber beauty of the Polish forest, endless pines and silences (we walked in silence for an hour a day), and the simple rustic villages that we chanced upon. On the second day I had to accept a lift for the last hour, realizing my limits and knowing when to ask for help. Walking as a group you eventually talk with everyone individually, and I realized that we were blessed with some very good young people. Slowly the pilgrimage process began to work its old magic and I noticed a new growth of inner freedom, peace and joy.

By day three all my pains seemed to disappear, and even the concerns over my bad knee evaporated, I was just living in the moment, being where God wanted me to be. I felt young again, freed from the expectations and false chains of age.

Part of the last days of the MAGIS programme in Czestochowa was the Festival of Nations where each country presented its culture. As part of the Irish presentation I had been asked to impersonate Bono of U2 singing the song ‘One’. I had been working on this party piece during the pilgrimage and had sang it on stage with my Jesuit friends on the final night in the mountains. I have a particular love for this song as it reminds me of my deceased brother but it was also a symbol of a new start, finding my voice again, with this truly great group of supportive young people. I really loved practicing the song, hamming it up for the upcoming performance and recovering something of my lost talent for singing.

The highlight of the final part of MAGIS was the reconciliation service and vigil in the shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The huge wave of several thousand young people descended on the Jasna Góra Monastery. There was something significant for me in hearing confessions on the hill of Our Lady, seeing the scars on the face of the Black Madonna and realizing the extent of the Polish devotion and protection sought down the years. Our MAGIS pilgrimage was given new meaning and focus in having a Marian shrine as the destination and high point.

Then, all at once it was all over and we were on a bus for Cracow, and the second part of our pilgrimage: World Youth Day (WYD) with Pope Francis himself. This was a whole other dynamic however, as we moved from the intimacy of MAGIS to the massiveness of WYD where everything was multiplied by a factor of thousands. It was like going from a pond to the sea. We arrived at a parish in the Grzegorzecka district of Cracow, 20 minutes by tram from the centre. Some other groups were over an hour or two away with huge commutes. The Irish group were based in a school gym and as a priest I was sharing with a group of 7 others in the Rectory. It took a while for us to get registered and it seemed that every half an hour another group of Irish pilgrims from some diocese would arrive and camp outside the doorway.

The normal WYD schedule includes bishops leading catechesis in the mornings to different language groups, afternoon workshops and seminars around the city, and different liturgies with Pope Francis in the evening. Before coming I had volunteered at one of the three Jesuit MAGIS Cafes promoting the Jesuits and all things Ignatian around Cracow. I was working in MAGIS Café 1, a secluded courtyard in the Jesuit curia building, just off the main square, which was designed as a place of relaxation and reflection in the midst of a noisy and extrovert WYD event. Every morning I would leave the Irish group to their catechesis and make my way into the walled city for work. This was largely ‘the ministry of hanging around’, welcoming people, and trying to help people.

Seeing Pope Francis in the flesh (a dot in the distance) was a great moment where the head of the church was present to us in the mucky reality of the ‘field’ (i.e. back in Blonia for the ‘Way of the Cross’ that evening) with hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims. The Pope’s address struck a chord in terms of practical spirituality that engages the world and spoke of Pope Francis’ testimony in living this (never too old!).

“Humanity today needs men and women, and especially young people like yourselves, who do not wish to live their lives “halfway”, young people ready to spend their lives freely in service to those of their brothers and sisters who are poorest and most vulnerable, in imitation of Christ who gave himself completely for our salvation.”

I had a new insight about being a pilgrim: as well as being an attitude of mind, it was an openness to the spirit working in ordinary things in everyday life. Like Mary, it was about being humble and receptive, in order to allow great things to happen through us.

Everything was building up to our last overnight on WYD: a prayer vigil with the Pope, sleeping under the stars and then the final Sunday outdoor mass. As it was a totally outdoor event so there was an obvious lack of privacy, though exuberance and youthful enthusiasm overcame all obstacles. The vigil with the Pope was one of the most moving moments as dusk fell and emotions were intensified. I shared earphones with another Irish woman to hear Rand Mittri, a 26-year-old Syrian woman talk about about the destruction of Aleppo. A visibly moved Pope Francis called on youth not to be “couch potatoes” but to be “alert and searching, trying to respond to God’s dream and to all the restlessness present in the human heart,” underlining that they weren’t here to “vegetate, to take it easy” but to “leave a mark.” The Pope posed these issues in terms of a series of questions “Are you up to this?” and you could hear the answers echoing round the field. Finally, the lighting of personal candles transformed the field into a sea of lights, reflecting the hope and individual mission for each person. Kneeling in that field, holding my candle, connected in prayer to the Pope and the several million others present, I understood ‘vigil’ anew in terms of wakefulness and openness to the world.

Waking up the next morning my walk back alone to our host parish in Cracow was a very difficult one, the hot tar, humidity and the thirst led to some heat exhaustion where I had a headache and didn’t feel well. But after a few hours sleep and some rehydration salts given to me by another priest, I woke up at midnight feeling decidedly better. In what was to become my 11th hour deliverance, I met one of the Polish volunteers on duty below and he got me on an early train to Warsaw which would deliver me to the airport on time. Several hours later I was home in Belfast, happier than ever to see my own bed.

It struck me that WYD was every much a pilgrimage as the Camino, even more so. There was the challenge of 18 days of transitions, challenges and discernment; then the sharing with others, meeting many new and diverse people, walking several hundred kilometres in total, keeping a positive outlook and enjoying things mostly. It was rewarding to be part of the Jesuit/MAGIS programme, to represent the Jesuits at WYD, and just about making it home with a great story to tell! I felt it was a falling in love again with life, with pilgrimage and with the world of young people. It was infectious and I was pulled into it almost against my will- overcoming the negative thoughts of being old and beyond it. It felt like the same grace as from the Camino in a new setting- a renewal of energies and faith. Ironically, it was almost exactly a year since I had fallen and bust my knee in Spain.

Brendan McManus SJ