Lessons from World Youth Day 2016

I know it's been quite a while since World Youth Day in Krakow but I want to reflect here about it because it was an incredible experience. I had the chance to attend WYD last July with an amazing group of young adults, mostly from St. Paul's Parish, Richmond. Before heading to Krakow we spend a week being hosted by parishioners of Our Lady of La Salette Parish in the Diocese of Sandomierz who were incredibly welcoming and generous. From there we made our way down to Krakow. This two week experience was very powerful for me and I learned a lot. Here are a few of the lessons I take with me.

1) As a global Church we face very similar challenges
Before heading to Poland I had heard much about how strong the Catholic faith is in Poland. The way some people had described it, it seemed like some oasis of belief somehow buffered from the difficulties we encounter in Vancouver. During the week we spent in Sandomierz, I had the opportunity to stay in a local parish rectory with the four priests serving the community there. It was wonderful to share about what parish life is like in our countries. From these priests I learned that there is much that is wonderful and positive about the local Church in Poland. On the other hand, they also spoke of their struggles. The pastor explained to me that since the fall of communism, Church attendance has been steadily declining, particularly among young people. The number of people entering seminary and religious communities is also going down. Though this was somewhat disheartening at first to hear, it was good lesson to learn. There is no perfect Church situation in the world. There are struggles everywhere. Being with the priests in Sandomierz, I felt a bond with them. We face similar challenges, but we are in this together. We are here to support each other.

2) Our response to these challenges is the same
For me the talks by Pope Francis at World Youth Day were inspiring and gave us concrete direction forward in response to the challenges we face. Pope Francis' message to us in Krakow had two main points, both of which are found already in his first document he presented as Pope, The Joy of the Gospel: 1) Embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others and 2) accompany and serve the suffering, especially those most abandoned and on the margins of society. To the first point, Pope Francis spoke strongly about how precious to God each one of us personally is, about the joy of having a relationship with Jesus our Saviour and about the importance of inviting those around us to come to know Jesus as well. To the second point, Pope Francis called on the over one million young people at WYD to build a more just and loving society. He reminded us that true happiness is not found sitting on the couch but rather in service to those who are suffering. As just one concrete example, he repeatedly pointed to the plight of Syrian refugees and the necessity for us to welcome and care for them. Considering that the current Polish government has refused to accept any Syrian refugees into the country, his message was particularly challenging.

3) God intervenes directly in our lives
One of the best parts about going to the WYD as part of a group was seeing how those around me experienced God is a very personal and strong way. God spoke to them through the talks they heard, interactions with others, the hospitality of our hosts in Poland, and witnessing the various events playing out around them. In my opinion, one of the most powerful and perhaps unexpected ways God worked was through difficulties: lost luggage, injuries, fatigue and other struggles. In all these ways, God spoke a personal message to each of us. Some He filled with a sense of how much they are loved by Him and how important they are to Him personally. Others were guided into making important decisions. Many were willed with a greater sense of hope and courage to continue following Jesus. I don't think that there was anyone in our group who was not impacted in some personal way during WYD. I hope that all of us can return in prayer to these experience and draw greater clarity and strength from what we experienced in Krakow.

A huge blessing for me was very unexpectedly running into Fr. Eliecer, a friend of mine who is a priest with the Missionaries of Charity. We spent five years together when I was in formation with this community.
4) Bonus lesson: Perogies are delicious!

Nuggets of carbohydrate goodness!

I was very happy to participate in this past World Youth Day in Krakow. It was a very rich and powerful experience for me. I am grateful to have lived this with my fellow pilgrims!

Our great group after the closing Mass just before walking 15 km back to our accommodations.
The morning after the closing Mass with Pope Francis I took a train from Krakow to Warsaw. From there I flew Tel Aviv and took a bus to Jerusalem. I will be staying in Jerusalem for the next six months as part of my studies. That, however, is something a will have to share in another post!

How the Ascension makes our life better through Pentecost

A friend recently shared with me a story about his childhood that helped me to better understand the significance of the Ascension in our lives. My friend grew up in Chile. When he was about 10 years old, his father took on a new job and moved to the United States. The plan was that his dad would begin working in the United States while making preparations so that the rest of his family could immigrate there after one year. My friend explained how incredibly difficult it was for him to say goodbye to his father at the airport when he left for the United States. He was not thinking ahead to the fact that he would see his father again soon enough. As a 10 year old boy, the only thing that he had in his mind was that he would not be with his dad for one year. This seemed like an eternity to him. At the time it felt like his father had abandoned him and his family.

After some time, his dad got settled in the United States. He used the money from his pay cheques to start making preparations for the rest of his family to join him. In addition, he sent some cash from his paycheck back to Chile each month. My friend explained that after his father moved to the United States, their lives in Chile immediately improved because of the money his dad was sending them. Finally after one year, the rest of his family immigrated to the United States. This move drastically changed my friend’s life for the better. He was able to get a great education and eventually discovered his vocation to the priesthood in this new country. In the beginning, my friend had viewed his father’s move as an abandonment. In the end, he learned that, in spite of the huge sacrifice, his father needed to separate himself from his family for a time in order to make a better life for them.

At the Ascension we can all feel a bit like my friend when his father left for the United States. We can feel abandoned when Jesus ascends to heaven. Would it not be better if He had stayed here with us? Whenever we needed Him, we could simply go to Him. After the Ascension, Jesus can feel so distant. We too can feel abandoned. This is far from the truth. Like my friend’s father, Jesus has gone before us to prepare for us a new, better life. Eventually we will experience this life to the full when we “immigrate” to God our Father in heaven. Even before this day, however, Jesus is making our lives better. He too is sending some cash from his paycheck back home to improve our lives. The greatest gift that Jesus sends to us now is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is already transforming our lives here and now. It is this gift that we celebrate and remember each Pentecost. The Ascension is necessary because Jesus wanted to create for us a better life.

Not recognizing Jesus

When I read the Bible stories describing how Jesus appeared to His disciples after He had risen from the dead, I can feel some jealousy towards the disciples. Because of when and where they were born, they were fortunate enough to see the Risen Christ with their own two eyes. I only I had this experience my faith would never waver! I would fear nothing! I would have an unshakable hope in all that Jesus promises!

Whenever I start to think like this, an important detail from Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances as told in the Gospel of John brings me back to reality: the disciples were in the presence of Jesus but they did not recognize Him. First, Mary Magdalene is weeping at the tomb, thinking someone has taken away the body of Jesus. Jesus is standing right beside her, speaking with her, but she doesn’t recognize Him. She thinks He is the gardener. Later, while Peter and other disciples are fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, a man appears on the shore and gives them fishing advice. Again, they do not recognize that it is Jesus.

The peculiar fact that the disciples can be standing right next to the Risen Jesus and even speak with Him without realizing who He is, teaches us that their experience is not much different than us who live some 2000 years later. We are not at a disadvantage for having been born when and where we were. Like the disciples, the Risen Christ is always present, working in our life, but often we do not recognize Him.

Mary Magdalen only recognizes that the gardener is in fact Jesus when He calls her by name. Peter and the other disciples recognize that the man giving unsolicited counsel from the shore is in fact Jesus when the advice helps them bring in a miraculous catch of fish. If we are attentive, Jesus reveals Himself to us in similar ways. Like Mary Magdalene, we can hear Jesus call our name when we read scripture, when someone unexpectedly offers us a kind word of encouragement, or when we are struck by the beauty of nature. Like Peter and the other disciples in the boat fishing, Jesus shows Himself by blessing our actions in a way that is beyond our capabilities. For example, we are able to help someone or say something to them that blesses their life in a way that is far beyond the power of our action alone.

During the Easter Season we celebrate the fact that Jesus has truly risen from the dead. Each year, we remind ourselves that the Risen Jesus is very present in our own life, strengthening us and filling us with peace, hope and joy. This happens in proportion to our ability of recognizing the simple ways Jesus shows Himself to us each day. Take a moment to look back over the past week. What is one concrete event through which Jesus revealed Himself to you? Let us recognize these events often and give thanks for them, crying out like the disciples “it is the Lord!”