Alaska teens and college students plan to join Pope Francis and more than 2 million people at the World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland this month. It is a pilgrimage meant to change lives and open life-long connections.
Anchorage’s Abigail Jones, 15, anticipates the event as “one big support group” made up of pilgrims from different cultures. She sees that today’s young people need these kinds of pilgrimages to help one another during often troubling global events.
“It’s good to bring people from all over the world together who share the same religion,” Jones said. “Even if all the bad things happen, we have each other and we can depend on each other in prayer.”
It was Saint Pope John Paul II who first challenged young people in 1984 to attend an International Jubilee of Youth by gathering on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s square.
“What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today!” the late pope then told a crowd of 300,000 young people. “Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”
It was at that gathering 32 years ago that Pope John Paul II entrusted those ages 16-35 with what is now known as the World Youth Day Cross, to be carried throughout the world as a symbol of the love of Christ for humanity.
But the challenge of passing on the faith to young people has proved difficult in the ensuing decades. Youth attendance numbers have steadily declined in churches across the U.S. and Europe. Fewer are drawn to the priesthood and religious vocations.
To hold steady focus on young people, World Youth Days take place every two years in various locations. The Philippines, France, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Poland, Spain and the U.S. have all hosted the event.
Organizers of the upcoming gathering, July 25-31, are anticipating 2 million attendees from 180 countries. The schedule includes vigil services, visiting sites historically significant to Pope John Paul II, prayer services at concentration camps of the Holocaust, a meeting with Pope Francis on July 28 and a special closing Mass on July 31 with the pope.
Jones is one of the younger pilgrims, traveling with her two older sisters, Alyson, 18, and Emily, 17, also from Anchorage. The 80 Alaskan youth planning to attend come from the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau dioceses. Another 30 older adults will accompany them.
Bob McMorrow, director of evangelization and catechesis at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, attended his first World Youth Day at age 20. In 1993 he was a student at Northern Illinois University when he hopped a bus to Denver, Colo., to attend the event the only time it was held in the United States.
“It’s the ultimate Catholic event for lots of reasons,” McMorrow said. “To be on pilgrimage, to spend time in community, to see the universal church and people from almost every county that wouldn’t be persecuted for their religion — it changed my life.”
McMorrow became a youth minister at St. Benedict’s instead of heading for the classroom as a biology teacher. World Youth Day helped him realize why he was Catholic.
“It’s a very powerful time,” he said. “You get away from the craziness of life and explore and expand your faith.”
Since his first World Youth Day, McMorrow has written and updated a guidebook for the pilgrimage.
“He has literally written the book on World Youth Day,” said his co-planner, Theresa Austin, the youth minister at Holy Cross Church. It’s available on Amazon.com and can be accessed as an e-reader.
Since the 80 Alaska young people attending the Poland World Youth Day come from such a variety of backgrounds, preparation for the event has focused on spiritual growth as well as the travel preparations of the pilgrims.
“Some of them have never been out of state, some haven’t traveled out of the country,” Austin said. “I try to explain they will not have personal space. When they enter a cathedral, they will have people pressing right up next to them, and on the subway, in the buses.”
They’re also asked to turn off all electronic devices — video games, smart phones and Facebooking.
The groups will first fly to New York and then on to Ireland for a five-day, pre-World Youth Day pilgrimage. Afterwards they head to Berlin for a seven-hour bus ride to Krakow.
To pull off such a trip takes planning and more than two years of fundraising to help participants raise 80 percent of the $2,000 or more it costs for each person. Thirty people from St. Benedict’s will be traveling.
To raise funds, parish youth hosted three different Italian dinners each year. By upscaling it — McMorrow didn’t want anyone to call it a spaghetti feed — they were able to charge $30 per meal. Each dinner featured an antipasto tray, stuffed mushrooms, spinach gnocchi, homemade pasta (made at the church on a pasta machine), homemade sauce, salad and dessert.
Every other parish in Alaska sponsoring World Youth Day pilgrims also did a lot of cooking, hosted tea parties and carried out other fundraisers.
Pilgrim Ellen Sharkey attends the Franciscan Siena College in upstate New York. She felt bad she wasn’t home to help with the fundraising. But when she returned on breaks she did as much as she could at her Anchorage parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
For her, this is an opportunity to grow in faith but also to explore her ancestral history.
“I’m Polish and this is my first time to visit there,” Sharkey said. “I’m excited to see places where Pope John Paul II attended.”
She is looking forward to spiritual awakenings, while also seeking unity with others from her generation around the world.
“A lot of young people are not as active in the church, so I’m excited to celebrate Mass with them and feel their presence,” Sharkey said.
Pilgrim Madelyn Kudyba, 20, acknowledged she’s not sure what to expect. At age 12, she traveled to Poland with her parents and twin sister Claire. But attending a global-scale Mass and other events with 2 million other people is not easy to picture.
“As a pilgrimage, I’m not sure what to expect,” she said. “I know it’s going to be pretty amazing and right now, it’s a mystery.”
Max Brinker, 16, had a year to prepare after realizing traveling to World Youth Day was possible after all. He saved all his gift money and personal income from working at True Value Hardware for the trip.
“You don’t get many chances to see the pope, and you don’t get the chance to see the big historical Catholic things in America,” Brinker said. “Spiritually my goal is to get closer to God and to understand how people a long time ago — the saints — got closer to God.”