“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
If you’ve seen the countless SnapChats, Tweets, and Facebook posts from pilgrims, you know World Youth Day feels like one giant party.
But behind the festival atmosphere, pilgrims here are learning real lessons about God’s mercy. They are learning how we must be vessels of God’s forgiveness and love, even when it’s difficult.
Mercy—the official theme of World Youth Day 2016—is not just a buzzword here. It’s a virtue that is being explored and put into practice. It’s also the focus of all the catechesis, or teaching sessions, available to WYD pilgrims.
Mercy: An Answer to Violence.
A pilgrim from the United States tells me she was inspired by a catechesis session based on a recent tragedy in France.
A French bishop led the session, taking the rare opportunity to show what “being merciful” can sometimes require. His message was a response to the horrific killing of an 86-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel, which took place in a French church as millions of pilgrims were settling into their accommodations in Kraków.
Rather than being angry about the tragedy that happened in his home country — an emotion few would blame him for — the bishop taught that even the killers of the priest deserve God’s mercy.
He said that just as we receive mercy from the Lord, we are called to be vessels of mercy for others, even those who appear to be lost to evil. The bishop urged the young pilgrims in attendance never to return senseless acts of violence with more violence. Rather, he said, we must pray for people who commit horrific evils so they will one day know God’s mercy. We must be the ones to deliver God’s mercy to them.
In the span of a few hours, pilgrims got to witness a real life example of how God’s radical mercy really does extend to everyone.
A Saint for Mercy.
Throughout the week at World Youth Day, pilgrims have a chance to learn about another vessel of mercy: Saint Faustina Kowalska.
The Divine Mercy Sanctuary, where the tomb of St. Faustina is displayed, is just a short twenty-minute tram ride from the main city square. In the early twentieth century, St. Faustina received apparitions of Jesus Christ that inspired her to promote what we now know as the church’s Divine Mercy devotion. She also told an artist to paint an image that came to her in a vision, later known as the Divine Mercy image.
The image shows Jesus appearing with red and white rays radiating from His heart. According to St. Faustina’s diary, God told her, “I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and throughout the world.”
As I made my way up the path to the Divine Mercy Chapel, various groups of pilgrims — including groups from France, Mexico, and the Philippines – read the Divine Mercy Chaplet from their World Youth Day prayer booklets. Have mercy on us and on the whole world, they said in unison.
Silence fell among the groups of pilgrims as they entered the Divine Mercy Chapel. People lined up to kiss a relic of Saint Faustina Kowalska before observing the image of the Merciful Jesus. One group squeezed into a tight space near the front of the chapel so they could kneel in reverence and prayer. While most pilgrims only had a short time frame to view the Divine Mercy image, about thirty seconds before they were urged to keep moving, they walked away inspired.
Open to Receiving Mercy.
Not far from the chapel, organizers have set up the “Valley of Mercy,” an area filled with about 50 confessionals for pilgrims who want to go through an act of reconciliation and receive the Sacrament of Confession.
Poland is especially devoted to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, according to one pilgrim I spoke to who lives in a suburb of Warsaw. He said church-going Catholics here make it a practice to go to confession at least once a month, but often even more frequently. In this way, it is clear that St. Faustina’s message for the world to receive God’s mercy has not gone unheeded in her native country.
A priest from Argentina with experience giving confession in multiple languages said everyone confesses differently. Some people are matter-of-fact, and list off their sins in an orderly fashion. Others are more conversational, and provide as much context about their temptations as possible. There is no precise way one should confess, the priest noted, but the most important thing is that the person confessing is open and honest about their sins. We must be open in order to receive God’s mercy.
Here in Kraków, amidst celebration and joy, pilgrims are dedicating hours of their short time in this city to experiencing God’s mercy and getting ready to spread it to the world when they leave.
This article is part of an online series chronicling World Youth Day 2016. William Bornhoft, a journalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota, is in Kraków writing for The Word Among Us.