Houston pilgrims join millions for papal encounters in Krakow

August 16, 2016

KRAKOW, Poland (CNS) — More than 300 pilgrims from Galveston-Houston trekked through Kraków, Poland July 26 to 31 for World Youth Day. Joining an estimated two million others who were encountering Pope Francis and the Universal Church, these Texans walked the land of St. John Paul II and St. Faustina and her message of Christ’s Divine Mercy. 

“It’s an adventure,” said Jennifer Benitez, who attends the Catholic Charismatic Center and joined a group of pilgrims with the Archidiocesan Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry. “Humanity has really been highlighted. We have heard so many languages and seen so many flags.”

Their travels, which took them to Our Lady of Czestochowa and Krakow’s legendary Salt Mines, began with their first audience with the pope. 

“We are in Poland! It’s such a wonderful feeling knowing that (the Pope) is coming to us — he was on a tram! — and that we are in the same place,” Mirna Garza, who attends St. Jerome Catholic Church, said. “It’s a whole different culture, a whole different language but we feel at home. We go into the churches and we feel at home.”

Diego Espitia, also attends St. Jerome Catholic Church, felt the same. 

“It’s so humbling to see everything,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in Europe, but God is providing for us here in Poland despite the despair happening here.”

In Blonia Park, Pope Francis had his first official encounter with the young people. After taking a public tram from the Archbishop’s Residence in the heart of Kraków, the Argentine pontiff rode his Popemobile through the park to the main stage. 

There, a continental flag procession followed by an exhibition of cultural dances for the pope celebrated the more than 180 countries present at World Youth Day.

The pope then addressed the youth with repeated questions, to which the young people offered a thunderous response of affirmation. Several youth from across the world asked the Holy Father questions, which he answered in his address. 

“It is exciting to listen to you share your dreams, your questions and your impatience with those who say that things cannot change,” Pope Francis said. “For me, it is a gift of God to see so many of you, with all your questions, trying to make a difference. It is beautiful and heartwarming to see all that restlessness! Today the Church looks to you and wants to learn from you, to be reassured that the Father’s Mercy has an ever-youthful face, and constantly invites us to be part of his Kingdom.”

The pope beckoned the young people to change the world, and to avoid an “early retirement” where many young people give up in life early by taking dark paths. 

“The Church depends on us,” Garza said. “We are the generation that will take over and if we go back home and did what we needed to do, evil will dissipate little by little in our countries.”

One of the Houston contingents was led by Gabriela Karaszweski, director of the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry, joined by three priests: Fathers Dat Nguyen; Ray Cook, OMI; and Victor Perez. 

“We’re not sleeping as much as we’d like,” said Father Cook, chaplain at Rice University Catholic Student Center. “Sometimes the air conditioner breaks, or a three-hour bus ride becomes six, but we’re not complaining, we just deal with it.

“It means a lot to the young people” to be in Poland, he said. “They’re discovering a country that lives out their faith. It’s great to see Poland as a country that celebrates their faith. To be a part of that history and to see Poland as a country that’s proud of their Polish heritage but also their Catholic heritage.”

Pope Francis visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and a child’s hospital, then prayed the Via Crucis with the young people like Benitez, Garza and Espitia. He also visited the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and celebrated Mass at John Paul II’s Sanctuary. 

Benitez said the hardest part of the journey was the walk to Campus Misericordiae, where the pilgrims held an overnight vigil that began with Adoration with Pope Francis. The walks ranged from 10-20 miles for different pilgrims. 

“I had practiced walking with a heavy backpack for months prior to WYD, but nothing really preps you for something that physically demanding,” she said. “Although I was in my pain one of my fondest memories lie in that trying walk. I made a friend from Germany, and it was there where I sensed God’s graces the most.”

Garza said being in Poland was a glimpse of what it’s like to be in heaven. “Being in Poland means hope for the church, hope for the world and its a statement that the youth can change the world,” she said.

At a gathering for the largest English-speaking catechesis site inside the Tauron Arena, the Houston contingent listened to bishops and other Catholic leaders share teachings on the faith, including Sister Gaudia Skass of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as St. Faustina’s order. Sister Skass asked the audience to clutch their crucifixes in their hands, focusing on the cross and the empty spot on the other side. 

“In that moment I was moved, and it clicked,” said Gariza. “Right there I realized what it means to be one with Christ! What it means to be like Christ to others and what it means to pick up my cross and follow Christ! Finally, I realized what it means to love like Christ and be merciful.”

Take risks and do not let life’s obstacles get in the way of encountering the true joy and life that Jesus can give, Pope Francis told more than 1 million young people later that week.

“Don’t be afraid to say ‘yes’ to him with all your heart, to respond generously and to follow him,” the pope told pilgrims at the closing Mass July 31 for World Youth Day. “Don’t let your soul grow numb, but aim for the goal of a beautiful love which also demands sacrifice.”
Prior to Mass, Espitia joined the millions in Adoration. 

“I felt a moment where everything made sense was during the Saturday night vigil where we had adoration and praise and worship,” he said. “So many languages and so many cultures were shared that night, all to profess one faith. I felt that it was moving to see millions of people be unashamed to share their faith that night.”

“When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life. We can’t respond by thinking about it or ‘texting’ a few words,” the pope told the young people like Espitia, thousands of whom had spent the night camping at an area dubbed the Field of Mercy.
The lack of sleep and morning heat seemed to have little impact as the young men and women energetically waved their flags and ran as close as possible to the popemobile to greet Pope Francis.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the Gospel story of Zacchaeus, a reviled tax collector who, due to his short height, climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus.

The obstacles Zacchaeus faced — including his short stature — the pope said, can also “say something to us.”

“Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself,” he said.

By not accepting themselves and their limitations, Christians deny their “real stature” as children of God and see themselves as unworthy of God’s love.

At the same time, he said, people will try to convince Christians that there are others who are unworthy of God’s love.

“People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad,” he told the young people. “Instead, our heavenly Father ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.’ He demands of us real courage: the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies.”

The pope noted that Jesus looks at all people with the same gaze he looked at Zacchaeus, not taking into account his sins, wealth or social standing.

“God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In his eyes the clothes you wear or the kind of cell phone you use are of absolutely no concern. He doesn’t care whether you are stylish or not, he cares about you! In his eyes, you are precious and your value is priceless,” the pope said.

Another obstacle, the pope continued, is the “paralysis of shame,” one that Zacchaeus overcame by climbing the sycamore tree at “the risk of appearing completely ridiculous.”

Pope Francis encouraged the young men and women to not be ashamed in bringing “everything to the Lord in confession, especially your weaknesses, your struggles and your sins.”

“Don’t be afraid to say ‘yes’ to him with all your heart, to respond generously and to follow him! Don’t let your soul grow numb, but aim for the goal of a beautiful love which also demands sacrifice,” the pope said.

Zacchaeus’ final obstacle, he noted, did not come from within but from the “grumbling of the crowd” who first blocked him and then criticized him” for being a sinner.

God challenges Christians to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone and to risk being ridiculed for believing “in the gentle and unassuming power of mercy,” he said.

As he did with Zacchaeus, Jesus looks beyond appearances and faults to the heart — something young people are called to imitate, the pope said.

“Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, applying makeup on our souls so we seem better than we are,” he said. “Instead, establish the most secure connection, that of the heart that sees and transmits goodness without tiring.”

Although the Mass brought the World Youth Day celebrations to an end, Pope Francis invited the youth to continue along the path that began with their pilgrimage to Krakow and bring the remembrance of God’s love to others.

“Trust the memory of God: his memory is not a ‘hard disk’ that saves and archives all our data, but a tender heart full of compassion that rejoices in definitively erasing every trace of evil,” the pope said.

Before concluding the Mass with the recitation of the Angelus prayer, the pope invited the youths to carry the “spiritual breath of fresh air” back to their countries and communities and “wherever God’s providence leads you.”

That same providence, he concluded, is “one step ahead of us” and “has already determined the next stop in this great pilgrimage begun in 1985 by St. John Paul II!”

“So now I am happy to announce that the next World Youth Day — after the two that will be held on the diocesan level — will take place in 2019 in Panama,” Pope Francis told the youth.

The Panama delegation Krakow greeted the announcement with shouts of joy — dancing, bouncing and high-fiving each other.

Pope Francis invited bishops from Panama to join him at center stage in blessing the crowd.

Back in Houston, Benitez, Garza and Espitia hear that invitation to World Youth Day 2019 in Panama: “I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to World Youth Day to go,” said Espitia. “It is truly an unforgettable experience!” 

Benitez echoes Francis’ call for Panama: “You can go to World Youth Day! Yes, be it miles and dollars away, you can go! Pray, fast, and sacrifice,” she said., quoting St. John Paul the Great, “‘Do not be afraid!’ and go! See you in Panama!” 

— CNS contributed to this report.


Stateside gatherings bring World Youth Day to Houston, Washington
HOUSTON and WASHINGTON (CNS) — More than 200 young adults gathered at the Catholic Charismatic Center and the St. Dominic Center for prayer, catechesis and fellowship to open World Youth Day in Houston. 
The goal of the gathering was to connect the messages of Pope Francis to the Hispanic youth of Houston through several hours of reflection, Scripture, silence and praise and worship. Five different young adult groups from parishes across the Archdiocese helped to lead the gathering. The event coincided with Pope Francis’s celebration of World Youth Day in Poland with more than 1 million pilgrims from around the world. 
The event also allowed Hispanic young adults, especially those who are undocumented immigrants, to experience a journey of WYD pilgrims since international travel is difficult, as well as any other reasons they might not be able to attend, according to Mirna Ochoa.
In the nation’s capital, about 1,300 young adults also gathered for a stateside WYD celebration, with an added taste of Polish culture. Several sessions offered chances for eucharistic adoration, to attend confession, and to venerate the relics of two patrons of World Youth Day, St. John Paul II and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Catholic Relief Services set up a simulation of the refugee experience: Each person was given a card with a name, age, country and background of a refugee. They were taken through different stations to see what people encounter during their migration.