By Sara Lanzola
Two plus years of planning and the one thing I kept hearing over and over from people was “make sure you get comfortable shoes. This is a pilgrimage, not a vacation.” After being there, I have to say, that was some great advice. But even with all the reminders I could never understand what it meant to be a pilgrim until I was walking in those (comfortable) shoes.
World Youth Day is, on the surface, an opportunity to visit another country and interact with fellow Catholics from all over the world
and I have to admit, that was the appeal. However, it is, as its purest sense, a true pilgrimage. I felt blessed to have a college dorm room to sleep in, as I know of others who were staying in tents or on gym floors. Everyday started with the unfamiliar. What would be in that brown bag breakfast? (Answer: soggy sandwiches, strange juices, and a hard boiled egg). We had to walk everywhere. If a tram appeared, it seemed to be a relief sent from God Himself. It was uncomfortable, but in the words of Pope Benedict XVI
“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
It’s hard to sum up what I learned in those twelve days of travel. So many months later and I’m still processing and remembering each moment but as I pray about it, three things do keep popping up: Patience. Humility. Mercy.
I’m used to always knowing what is coming next. To be in control and not be surprised by things. On this pilgrimage, I had to let all that go. I had an itinerary in front of me but things would change at a moment’s notice. I learned that giving God the control was necessary and that He would give me a beautiful adventure. I also had to learn patience with myself. I had to learn that I just can’t do it all--even though it’s what I want. It’s not always about what I want. I struggled because as the pilgrimage went on, my body was not cooperating. It didn’t matter how much I had done to prepare-my tired feet were not having it. And it was hard.
Every step was excruciating, and even though I would look to the sky and offer it up for all those intentions sent to me by friends and family, there came a point where I had to follow the advice I had been giving my teens the entire journey: don’t make stupid choices. For them, I was referring to staying up all night knowing that we had a long day ahead of us. For me, it was taking a step back from some of the most beautiful experiences of the pilgrimage in exchange for not causing damage long term. Everything I had worked for over the past two years and here I was sitting in a lounge watching it all on TV instead of sitting in a field. Grant it, I was in Poland watching it on a TV, but I was sad.
But this day I had to spend alone allowed me time to reflect on all the beautiful moments of my journey.
The quiet peacefulness of Assisi. Arriving in Rome in the middle of the day to commotion and chaos, and then standing in awe at structures still standing after thousands of years. The massiveness of St. Peter’s Square, but how it still felt like home. A travel day where I was in four countries in one day. Visiting the eerie stillness of Auschwitz and leaving with so many questions unanswered. And the undeserved blessing of going to Krakow and walking in the footsteps of my hero, Saint John Paul II. God is so so good to me and I am blessed.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Mt 5:7) How appropriate that in this year of mercy, the above scripture was the theme of World Youth Day. How appropriate that it was held in the land of Saint Faustina and Saint John Paul II, the saints of mercy. In all my prayer and in all I did, the biggest thing I learned on this whole adventure is that I have no comprehension of the amount of mercy and love the Father has for me.
One of my favorite places to visit in Krakow was the convent of Saint Faustina. In the simplicity of the sisters’ chapel is the tomb of Saint Faustina as well as the Divine Mercy image. I was able to venerate her relics and pray. And then behind this convent is a huge shrine dedicated to Divine Mercy. Though vast in appearance, it tells you mercy is real. In the time given to explore around, I noticed that confessions were being heard on the back field behind the shrine. Mercy all around!
At the closing Mass for World Youth Day, Pope Francis left us with the following message…
The fact is, God loves us even more than we love ourselves. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always “cheering us on” he is our "biggest fan.”
“God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful! He believes that we can always get up.”
“He demands of us real courage: the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies."
"People may laugh at you because you believe in the gentle and unassuming power of mercy. But do not be afraid.”
I know I’ll continue to process this experience more and more in the months, and years to come. At times I feel undeserved to have been given the ability to go. I keep saying it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Every day I think of something new I learned. And I smile when I hear stories from my fellow pilgrims of what they learned. God was definitely working on my heart. And He’s really glad I wore comfortable shoes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara graduated from Xavier University in 2002. She takes her Jesuit education to heart and strives to lives each day "for the greater glory of God" and also challenges the teens in her youth group, hoping they will live the same way. She lives in Parma, Ohio with her cat, Oscar (as in Romero, not The Grouch). Sara loves learning about the saints, being with friends, and quoting "Friends", sometimes all at the same time!. She puts her complete faith and trust in God, even with all the unexpected twists and turns in this life. "For all things work together for those who love God and who have been called together according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28)