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The gift and joy of World Youth Day

I recently went on pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow. I travelled to Poland with a wonderful group from the Archdiocese of Dublin. It was a fantastic experience to be a pilgrim at World Youth Day for the fifth time. I have attended World Youth Day meetings in three continents spanning fourteen years of my young adult life. Each time it has been an amazing and privileged experience which has strengthened my faith and renewed my conviction to witness to it, knowing that I belong to a young, vibrant and living church. World Youth Day is a truly magnificent event and the experience of community is one of the most precious fruits. It is so uplifting to be gathered together with young Catholics from all around the world to truly experience the Universal Church and share the joy of our faith, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the reason for that joy, in a celebration that transcends beyond culture, language and nationality differences.

World Youth Day is an international meeting of youth from all over the world who gather around the Pope, experiencing the love of God and the richness of faith. It is a joyful and vibrant festival consisting of days in the diocese and four central events – an Opening Ceremony and a Welcoming Ceremony Stations of the Cross, Vigil and final Mass, with the Pope. In Krakow the Vigil took place at Campus Misericordiae, ‘the campus of mercy’, a large site 15km southeast of Krakow. The long walk to and from the vigil site undertaken in temperatures up to 30 degrees was a reminder of the pilgrimage aspect of World Youth Day. The Main Events were accompanied by many smaller events such as concerts, and exhibitions at more than 100 locations, as well as a “reconciliation zone” with several hundred confessionals.

It was a truly inspiring experience to listen to Pope Francis speak at World Youth Day. I was particularly struck by his address at the Welcoming Ceremony on 28 July at Jordan Park, Blonia which was attended by over 500,000 young people. “Jesus can give you true passion for life” the Pope said, explaining how Jesus can inspire us to give the very best of ourselves and to dream of great things. Focusing on the theme of World Youth Day ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5:7), the Holy Father said that “happiness is sown and blossoms in mercy”. He challenged us to ask the Lord to launch us on the adventure of mercy, “the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls…helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives…accompanying those who do not know you, and telling them carefully and respectfully your Name, the reason for our faith.”

In his homily at the Final Mass Pope Francis said that “World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on”, explaining how much Jesus wants to speak to us through his Gospel “so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life”. In his Catechesis to the Irish pilgrims Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was also looking beyond World Youth Day. He challenged us to go away from Krakow not just thinking about ourselves and the nice experience it was, but to consider “what now do I have to do to bring the message of Jesus Christ into the world in which we live”. Our world “needs the message of Jesus Christ”, Archbishop Martin said, explaining that “the harshness in our world needs the message of a mercy that can heal and free people”.

The World Youth Day Cross has been and accompanying Icon of Mary are the Symbols of the WYD. The pilgrimage of the Cross and Icon throughout the world is an established tradition that leads young people towards World Youth Day and everywhere the Cross has travels young people can be seen beside it deep in prayer. In 1984 Saint John Paul II entrusted this large wooden cross, 3.8 metres high, to the youth to “carry it throughout the world as a symbol of Christ’s love for humanity.” In 2003 he entrusted the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani to the youth to accompany the Cross as a sign of Mary’s motherly presence calling on them “to welcome her into their lives”. The home of the original World Youth Day Cross is at Centro San Lorenzo – the International Youth Centre at the Vatican. Being so close to this Cross was one of the highlights of my year at the Emmanuel School of Mission in 2011-12. Praying in silence beside it has helped me to experience the immense love of Jesus, surrendering my cares, desires and dreams to him.

Photograph: Patrick Muldoon pictured with pilgrims from Slovenia and Australia at Blonia Park, Krakow during World Youth Day