Monday, September 5, 2016

What World Youth Day was Really Like

As I process the interior stuff of this pilgrimage, I'm going to take a leap right into World Youth Day itself. It isn't that I've said everything that I could say about the Days in the Diocese and the earlier portions, but I'll hold on other observations for now and resume tracking this one aspect of the journey.

Someone commented to me recently how being "right there" during World Youth Day must have been "so powerful," such an "incredible experience of the Holy Spirit" overflowing everything. 

Well, I don't know what you associate with words like powerful, incredible, and Holy Spirit overflowing, but I will tell you that the actual events of World Youth Day were in one way the most draining for me of the whole pilgrimage. The following week won the prize for breaking me to pieces and tearing me to shreds, but World Youth Day is where I had most of the vitality drained out of me. This, too, is part of the pilgrimage process.

The "Days in the Diocese" week in Wroclaw was a blessing. I connected hard and fast with our host family hostess, whose open heart took me right in. We were able to talk almost instantly about matters of real significance, and that was something I dearly needed at that point. So when we had to part ways to go to Krakow, it was a sad portent to me of things to come. 

We arrived in Krakow late at night and I was sleep deprived. Our first day was actually a respite to my soul, because we went to the Wieliczka salt mine, but that story will need to wait for another theme. We were volunteers with the International Center of Evangelization, but we found that the tasks for which our help was sought were usually about directing foot traffic, and that the organization of events was lax to say the least. We ate our meals outside in all weather and slept on the floor of a gym. I felt like I lived on bread and pasta, things I try earnestly to avoid for the difficulties they give me. Mostly, the bulk of every day was about the enormous amount of time it took to move hundreds of thousands of people from one place to another. The evening gatherings with the Pope meant blocking out hours to navigate there and back, to keep in contact with our group, and to manage the basic necessities of life like food, water, and bathrooms. We strained to listen to translations on radio; sometimes it was clear, sometimes I couldn't get it at all, and once my hand cramped hard from holding the radio just so for over an hour.  I also got sick early in the week with a cold and something like a fever, and once again I remembered that I have a tendency to push myself until I am so disconnected with what is happening with my body that I can't tell that I'm sick until I am ready to drop.

But you have to understand, I'm not complaining about any of it.

At this point in the pilgrimage, I knew this is part of how we pray.

It is part of being reduced down to what is really important, and accepting all of these things for the sake of what is really important, which was to pray for the intentions I came there with (even though I hardly felt powerful). It is also to learn to offer to God a heart that wants only Him, and my own basic needs for His sake, so as to be able to serve.

It is also about learning what it means to belong to each other. One of the most absorbing tasks in those gigantic crowds was to try to not lose anyone. The other person's need became my need. It slowed everyone down, but there was nothing for us to hurry towards.

I truly felt my age. I normally feel like a young 48, but during World Youth Day I commented more than once that I needed World Geriatric Day. A teenager, I am not. And there is nothing wrong with accepting this reality, startling as it was.

During the trip to the Saturday Vigil, I was with a group of the sort of old and the youngest who took the train as far as we could go. The stalwart older teens walked the whole way. But even with that train trip, we still had quite a trek in the hot sun. What was really beautiful was the number of Poles who lined the roads to spray hoses on us, or offering drinks, candies, or buckets of water to splash our faces with. A German man, who had come to World Youth Day all by himself because his group had bailed on him, joined us and talked on the way. My son offered to carry backpacks for several people including myself, simply because he wanted to make it easier for us. Mercy really was flowing.

We faced a kind of crisis once we arrived at the site, however. Each of us had a food voucher that was good for a large bag of food, covering our dinner that night, and breakfast and lunch the next day. Distribution, from boxes on semi trucks, was a logistics nightmare. One woman commented accurately that it looked like something out of a Third World news report, and frankly many of the pilgrims seemed accordingly triggered. Until we re-grouped, all of our group stood in a crushing crowd where one could hardly fit a piece of paper between you and the next person. I was fearing for my short daughter with asthma, whether she was going to be able to keep breathing.

We decided eventually to back out and give all our vouchers to my son and another boy who would grapple through the crowd for the food. We had waited one hour; they waited another two. As we tried to verify where they were in the process, we simultaneously heard that all the food was gone and we had to walk a few miles to another distribution point, and then saw the boys with the food bags. They reported people shoving them, and knocking them over to try to get to the food. The boys were our heroes of the hour.

Oddly, they received 13 bags for 10 people. I was a bit frustrated with these boys for moving off with extras under these circumstances, but I think something of the scavenging beast mentality had come over me, so I didn't do much more than bark about it once as we went into the field to find our place. But as we went in, a woman on her own approached the boy with the extra bags and asked where she was supposed to find the food, since the near-by distribution point had run out. He simply handed her an extra. Our three-hour wait made her expression of gratitude all the more profound in my eyes. Shortly thereafter, we met up with two other members of our group who also had not been able to get food. And I learned to simply trust that God provides even through teenage boys.

We slept outside, and it was nice. My daughter woke with a nose bleed in a pool of blood, but we were near the medical tent and they cleaned her up and we were able to get a little more sleep. For once, it did not rain over night. The blazing hot sun gave way to torrential downpours as we walked to the train ride home, safely out of the dirt field.

I read what the Pope said on-line and saw some of the video coverage later on. And strangely enough, I learned what he said not by listening to him it but by living it. It sticks with you better that way.

So, yes, it was powerful, and it was an incredible experience of the Holy Spirit. But it was a hot, sweaty, draining, exhausting, frustrating, tedious path that left me feeling old, weak, and disoriented. Maybe we forget the Holy Spirit likes to use those means to reach into our souls.

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