On Sunday, July 17, a small group of young people gathered at St. Isaac Jogues Church, Wayne, to participate at Mass and to receive an official blessing administered by Father Edward Hamilton before their July 21 departure for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland.
They represent the delegation of almost 100 from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia traveling to the July 26-31 event, and one of half a dozen groups from the area who will attend.
For sheer enthusiasm, there is probably nothing in the Catholic world that beats Catholic Youth Day. The event draws thousands of young people from around the world to celebrate their faith with the Holy Father and absorb the energy to take back to their homelands.
For absolute importance the event is also unique because those who attend represent the church of the future.
This year is especially significant because it is being celebrated in Krakow, Poland, the diocese formerly led by St. John Paul, who instituted the first World Youth Day in Vatican City in 1984.
It has been held every two to three years since, and the event in Poland will be the 13th.
“You have so many young people coming for the Lord,” said Beth Riordan of the archdiocesan Office for Catechetical Formation and the Philadelphia group’s leader. “There is peace and joy and harmony. The youth are so excited to come together and to see the pope and hear his message. They really strive to incorporate what they have experienced into their lives when they get back home.”
Riordan, who will be attending her fourth World Youth Day, recalls those who had their vocation to the priesthood or religious life ignited through the experience and even those who met their future spouse during their pilgrimage.
For most others who are traveling with the group, it will be an entirely new experience.
Mikayla Chavarria, who is going into her senior year at Little Flower High School and who is a member of the Latino worshiping community at St. Leo Church in Philadelphia, has never been out of the country before.
“It will be a new experience and an opportunity to grow in different ways,” she said. “It’s an opportunity get to know different people and different cultures. I’m excited.”
Monica Zengal of St. Agnes Parish in West Chester, and finishing up as a student at Loyola University in New Orleans, said, “I’m excited about it. My mom decided we should go; I’m going with my brother Dominic.”
As for Dominic, a sophomore at Immaculata University, “It will be exciting to be with so many Catholics, all worshiping God in all different ways as one community,” he said.
Clare Stoyell-Mulholland is going into her junior year at Archbishop Carroll High School. She remembers her brother and sister going to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro three years ago and having such an amazing experience that she wanted to go too.
“I’ve been saving for this for two years,” she said. “It will give me a different outlook as a Catholic to see the diversity and unity of the church. It is people from all different countries with one faith in common.”
Bill Sopylo, a Villanova University graduate working in the computer science field, heard about the World Youth Day trip through a Catholic young adult group. He is of Polish descent but admits, “I’ve ignored my culture for years. When I heard this will be in Krakow I knew I should be going.
“I’ll reconnect with my Polish heritage resurrecting who I am. The year 2016 is the Year of Mercy and Krakow is the City of Mercy,” Sopylo said.
Joe Aquilante, who is a youth minister at St. Isaac’s and a theology teacher at Bishop Shanahan High School, is no stranger to World Youth Day.
“My first experience was 1993 in Denver,” he said. “That changed my life. I’m doing what I do today because of Pope John Paul II.
“It enlivens your faith when you see a million Catholics all together, it does something to you,” he said.
Clearly Aquilante has been spreading the good news of World Youth Day to others, for example, Preston Dinh, who is a member of St. Basil Parish in Kimberton.
“Mr. A. encourages me,” Dinh said of Aquilante. “Last year I went with him to the Bahamas to help with parishes (there). He has taken me to Steubenville (Franciscan University), and he has encouraged me to explore ways to grow my faith and explore the world.”
Through World Youth Day Dinh expects “hopefully to find a sense of peace; to feel God’s presence around me, for him to guide me.”
While World Youth Day with Pope Francis in Krakow will be the high point of the journey for the pilgrims, there will be many other places of interest, according to Riordan.
The group leaves for Munich, Germany on Thursday, July 21. Travel to points before and after the World Youth Day events will include trips through Bavaria to Augsburg and the Shrine of Mary Untier of Knots (a special devotion of Pope Francis); Regensburg, where Pope Benedict taught; Prague in the Czech Republic; onto Poland and to Wadowice, where Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul) was born and raised; the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa and the Divine Mercy Shrine.
There is also an intended visit to a horrific but nonetheless sacred site, where St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) were murdered by the Nazis along with well over a million other innocents, mostly Jews.
The young Philadelphians will have much to ponder by the time they fly back home on Aug. 4.