It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I set off on the Leeds Diocesan Youth Service pilgrimage to World Youth Day, in Krakow. Attending this event for the first time in my 40s, with a party of teenagers and young people, many thoughts and doubts were racing through my head: Would I fit in? What will it be like? Have I the stamina to keep up with the demanding schedule in high temperatures? Deep down, of course, I knew that it would turn out to be an incredible and enthralling experience allaying all my fears and reservations, and even these words fail to do the end product any remote justice.
After a long and tiring but fruitful 30 hour coach and ferry journey, where much getting to know each other and bonding took place, we arrived at our accommodation; a lovely convent with very warm and welcoming Sisters. Settling in quickly and feeling at home straightway, the first 2 or 3 days were largely spent finding our way round Krakow and undertaking group sessions and activities. This was broken up by a trip to the World War II concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which inevitably was an extremely strange and emotional experience in that time has stood still and it looks exactly the same now as then; truly shocking that people were treated in that way so recently in our history.
Once World Youth Day officially got underway we attended a number of sessions including talks, prayers, worship and Mass, the highlight for me being the speeches by Cardinal Luis Tagle from the Philippines, a brilliant, insightful and amusing personality, who is surely a strong papal candidate. We saw Papa Francisco (as they say) arrive, on TV, then attended his open-air welcoming event and Stations of the Cross in Blonia Park. Now the weekend itself had arrived, but first we had to endure an 8 mile walk along a sun-drenched road in scorching heat which required a great deal of rest and hydration. As always, our collective spirit and togetherness got us through (helped in no small part by our chance encounter with Cardinal Vincent Nichols when embarking), and on arrival at the purpose-built venue we laid out our camping gear for the night.
The Vigil with the Pope was moving and beautiful; everyone held a candle which created such a prayerful atmosphere in the darkness. We subsequently settled down for some sleep before the Sunday morning Mass itself; sadly it was so busy and popular that we decided to leave after Pope Francisí homily which, needless to say, was poignant and thought-provoking. Nonetheless we quickly heard about the Holy Fatherís announcement that the next World Youth Day will take place in Panama in 2019; he was driven past us in the car on our way back.
On arriving home (as we now readily called the convent) we had a farewell celebratory evening before leaving the following lunchtime, buzzing with the joys of faith and enlightened by Godís spirit; this made the return trip so much more pleasurable and it flew by.
We were greeted by friends and family members back in Leeds, with countless stories, thoughts, photos and souvenirs to share; but much more importantly we were a far stronger group in terms of togetherness and comradeship than when we set off, and have a collective wealth of religious fortitudes to build on and explore in our future lives.