As a new school year begins for teenagers across Alaska, so do tales of new jobs, family vacations and summer adventures. Amidst all the chatter, a small number of students will be recollecting their recent pilgrimage halfway across the world with millions of other young Catholics.
In other words, World Youth Day 2016, which took place July 25-31 in Krakow, Poland.
The gathering occurs every two to three years, and includes prayers and Masses with the pope and millions of fellow pilgrims.
Most of the time in Poland was dedicated to bolstering faith in the youth, who gathered from all corners of the earth — nearly 200 countries. Bishops met with the pilgrims and expounded on the core theme, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” one of the eight beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew.
According the official World Youth Day website: “All of the World Youth Days — according to their founder and patron saint Pope John Paul II — focus on one biblical thought, which often refers to the spirituality of the particular host city.”
“WYD was not invented by Pope John Paul II but by Father Karol Wojtyla, who lived in Krakow. Coming back to Krakow is like getting back to the source,” World Youth Day speaker Father Thomas Rosica said of the adventurous Polish priest become the transformative Pope John Paul II.
On the second to last day of activities, Pope Francis led a prayer vigil, reminding his listeners that, “Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths.”
After walking upwards of eight miles per day in 90 degrees heat, most Alaskans were more ready to trade in their walking shoes for a sofa. Pilgrims needed to stay well hydrated to ward off heat stroke.
“Just makes me think of walking — walking and being hungry,” Cameron Benning of Juneau said, reflecting on the meaning of the word “pilgrim.”
Anchorage’s Anna Berry described not so much a vacation but more of a classical pilgrimage experience, which has traditionally meant embracing a level of suffering and prayer.
“I wouldn’t say it was fun because a lot of people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Oh did you have a good time?’ and I didn’t,” Berry said. “It was really stressful for a lot of the time and it took a really long time to get from place to place so it took a lot of patience … I think it was more the pilgrimage experience and learning to offer it up [to God].”
Juneau traveler Lexi Mountcastle agreed.
“Every morning was the same ordeal, we would get up early, have this weird breakfast, walk forever until we got to the spot,” she said.
The adversity helped Mountcastle to grow in faith alongside Benning and her fellow Alaskans.
“I think I have less of a problem doubting my faith now because there are so many other people that I can reach out to and I know they have the same outlook on things,” she said. “In a pilgrimage you really have to go out of your comfort zone and I think that’s what made it a pilgrimage for me.”
Pope Francis announced Panama as the next host country for World Youth Day 2019.