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World Youth Day: A Celebration of Hope

A sea of raincoats, a field of candlelight, the chants of Italian pilgrims, the rhythmic beating of African drummers.  Voices raised in spontaneous song. Heads bent in quiet prayer. They were among the many memorable sights and sounds of World Youth Day 2016, a celebration of hope and the universal Church.

“Words cannot describe how incredible it was,” says Anna Zmistowski, age 16, from Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord, Old Town. “It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”

“It was kind of like it was a dream because you saw so many people come together and be together,” says Eddy Gabriel Tchatat, age 18, from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland.  “What was heartwarming was seeing all the people come together to worship the Lord."

Thirty-four pilgrims from the Diocese of Portland, including Bishop Robert Deeley, traveled to Kraków, Poland, this July to attend World Youth Day.  Instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1985, the event is typically held every three years and has been celebrated on every continent except Antarctica.

Attendance this year was estimated at two-and-a-half million or more.

“You cannot imagine how many people, two million people actually is. You felt surrounded not only by faith in Jesus Christ but also this overwhelming joy,” says Anna.

“Seeing the Church universal was something, I think, that I really needed at this point in my vocation,” says Joshua Maloney, age 19, a seminarian. “We are all parts of the one Body of Christ, like Saint Paul talks about in one of his letters. So, that was beautiful for me to see.  It just filled me with great joy to see all these countries waving their flags.”

The pilgrimage was an opportunity for the youth to share, to pray, to learn, and to be inspired.

They recall the warmth of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who, during one of the catechesis sessions, told them, “We need love.” He urged them, “Tell every stranger you meet that they mean so much to you.”

“He was just an adorable cardinal,” says Ashley Pezanowski, age 19, from Saint Brendan the Navigator Parish, Camden.  “He spoke with such a grace and such a joy that it was wonderful to see Christ work through him.”

They learned about the biology of the Theology of the Body from Vicki Thorn, the foundress of Project Rachel, who shed light on the Church’s teaching on marriage, sex, and contraception.

“That just amazed me because it was very in depth, and it had so many details. It gave me a lot of new information about birth control and just men and women in general,” says Ashley.

And they were, of course, thrilled to see and hear Pope Francis who celebrated the closing Mass and attended the vigil the night before. His warning about the dangers of “sofa happiness,” seemed to especially hit home.

“To think that in order to be happy, all we need is a good sofa; a sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe; a sofa like one of those we have nowadays with a built-in massage unit to put us to sleep,” the pope said. “That is probably the most harmful and insidious form of paralysis.”

The pope challenged the youth: “God expects something from you. God hopes in you.”

He told them, “The times we live in do not call for young ‘couch potatoes’ but for young people with shoes or, better, boots laced.”

“He’s telling everyone to trade in their couch for shoes and go out and do something, to really go out and make a difference,” says Emilee Wermenchuk, age 17, from Good Shepherd Parish, Saco.

“It was really inspiring to hear this man, who has so much hope and belief in us,” says Anna. “He left us with this feeling that ‘I know you will bring the Church into the future.  You will keep the faith.’ He encouraged us all to stay very active in our faith. You felt like he was speaking right to you.”

While the pilgrimage culminated with the beauty of two-million candles lighting up a field and with the celebration of Mass with Pope Francis, the journey included many other moving stops, beginning with a visit to the Jasna Góra Monastery, home of the Shrine of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. English-speaking pilgrims gathered there for a Mass celebrated by cardinals and bishops including Bishop Deeley.  The teens say it was so crowded that it was difficult to get everyone to quiet down, but the result was something wonderful.

“Someone started singing, and this was an English Mass, so people from all over the world and all across the U.S. were singing the same songs.  It was so beautiful in that chapel to hear the resonance of our voices,” says Ashley.

“It was one of the most beautiful moments I ever saw because it would just be one individual who started singing, like ‘Immaculate Mary,’ and the whole Church would start singing as well. It was gorgeous,” says Emilee.

Anna says their spot in the chapel was to the side where they couldn’t see the sanctuary, but it turned out to be a gift.

“I realized that I didn’t need to see anything. I knew the words. I knew what was going on and so did everyone around me.  It actually ended up being one of the most faith-filled Masses that I’ve ever attended because if you’re not seeing things, you really have to depend on your faith,” she says.

The Maine youths were also among 155,000 World Youth Day pilgrims who visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

“It was basically an experience that you wouldn’t really understand unless you go to that place,” says Eddy. “I had to muster myself not to cry because, just walking around it and seeing how vast it was, it was just too much.”

“We got there early, so we were able to walk through the camp with very few people around, and especially going through Birkenau, the entire group was completely silent,” says Emilee.  “Everything just seemed kind of juxtaposed against itself because, in that area, there were beautiful trees, and it was all so green, and the sun was bright and shining, and the sky was blue, but then everything around it was evil.”

“You’re trying to reason with God. How could this have happened? And Bishop Deeley actually offered the most insight, I think, because he was speaking about how we all question, ‘Where was God when this happened?’ And he said that God was with each of those people….He is there with us, and He is going through struggles with us. And I think that was really a different perspective,” says Anna.

Other stops included the childhood home of Pope Saint John Paul II and the Divine Mercy Sanctuary, the resting place of Saint Faustina of Kowalska.

Emilee says she was moved by the prayerfulness of the sisters in the Divine Mercy Shrine’s adoration chapel.

“It was just absolutely amazing to see because (a sister) would just be there, and she was maybe five feet away from the monstrance but completely still, and composed, and prayerful,” Emilee says. “It just captured the importance of being connected to God and the desire to sit in His presence. I couldn’t stop looking.”

Maureen Provencher, the diocese’s youth ministry coordinator, says she hopes the trip helps the pilgrims develop a greater appreciation for the importance of Christ’s presence in their own lives.

“I really hope that the young people, given this experience, have been able to connect more deeply with the Lord, more intimately with Him, so that in their coming back home and being a part of a community, they’re able to really live the Gospel message, as difficult and as challenging as that can be in this world,” she says. “Because, as Pope Francis reminded them, they are the hope in this world.”

The youth say they have many memories they will carry with them from the pilgrimage, but above all, they will remember the joy.

“I don’t want to forget how excited I am and how happy I am. I think I want to really focus on showing that with my faith,” says Ashley.

“This experience is not one that many people get to go through, and I need to really take advantage of this and really start getting serious about my faith,” says Anna.  “We all know there are concerns about whether this generation of youth will be able to carry the faith, but going to events like this, you really are able to see that there is a much larger Church, and there is hope for the Church in the future.”