Millions of people converged on Krakow, Poland about a year ago. While among them I gained the ability to imagine a world at peace. I can now imagine global peace. I also know that the Church has something to teach the world about it.
In July of 2016 I was a chaperone for a group of high school students from my parish who went on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow. I went to Toronto for WYD in 2002 as a college student, a young pilgrim. For that reason, to a certain degree, I knew what challenges to expect: lots of walking, battling the elements (sun, rain, heat, mud), and waiting in long lines. I fully expected that alongside those challenges there would be the deep grace that God provides to pilgrims, lovely cultural encounters with people from across the globe, and, of course, the special experience of accompanying high school students in their faith, doubts, laughs, and struggles. All of that happened, but the meaning of the event, which I still ponder in prayer, is how that gathering was a witness to peace.
The danger of writing about an experience of the living God is that words fail. Nonetheless, allow me to paint a picture with words. Krakow was swelled with humans. Streets and town squares were transformed into places of human encounter. Young people (and their bewildered chaperones) swam in fountains, climbed statues, danced, sang, and laughed. Catholic youth met other young Catholics from other corners of the globe. We hugged, high-fived, and listened to each other with curiosity and reverence. It was, in a word, fun.
The gathering did not lack patriotism. Actually, everyone’s love of their homeland was on full display on their t-shirts and flags. Rather than being an occasion for one-upmanship, it was an occasion to celebrate each other’s heritages. To a group of Costa Ricans I yelled, “¡Pura vida!” which was met with applause and the response from the Costa Ricans was: “USA! USA!” At another point, in a large gathering, groups of persecuted Catholics from Iraq and Syria were greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheers. I cheered while being moved to tears. What I witnessed at WYD was that people presumed the best in each other, gave others the benefit of the doubt, and allowed our shared faith to be our starting point for encounter with people of other nationalities.
At the culmination of World Youth Day, pilgrims walked from many different parts of the city to a location where they will spend the night in a field under the open sky. The flood of a few million faithful youth walked through the streets toward a common destination. Many thousands carried flags from their home country (or state, or college, or soccer team), all waving and producing a swirl of colors complemented by the hymns sung in a multitude of languages. It is a vision straight out of Scripture, a gathering of the nations, the great qahal (cf. Is 43:9; 66:18; Ps 102:22, and others). The Gospel has spread to the ends of the earth, and people from the ends of the earth have in turn gathered to celebrate the Good News. The vision was overwhelming. I wept. Millions of people all walking in the same direction while singing and laughing.
You may recall the turbulence of July 2016 and know that the gathered were not naïve in the face of terror. Nine days prior to the gathering in Poland, a cargo truck plowed through crowds of tourists in Nice, France. Days before WYD a terrorist with a gun opened fire at an airport in Munich. While World Youth Day was happening, an elderly priest was killed by knife while celebrating Mass in Normandy.
This was on our minds as pilgrims; we prayed about this in our small groups, and we prayed as a group of millions. The peaceful gathering was not one marked by naiveté of the dangers of assembling in large groups in an age of terrorism. Rather, the bravery of the youth overshadowed the threat. The Catholic response of the youth to terrorism was: we are not scared; we choose peace.
Pope St. John Paul II said in a homily once that “peace is not just the absence of war.” World Youth Day is not an experience of the absence of conflict; it is a practice of peace—a gathering of many nations celebrating faith in a joyful way. The Church has long promulgated documents in support of pathways to peace and loudly decried the waging of war. But this was an experience of peace, global peace, in a microcosm. The great gift of life post-WYD is the ability for those who participated to imagine a world at peace. Indeed “we cannot move toward that which we cannot imagine,” and I now can imagine peace because I have a memory of peace. The event of world peace on a miniature scale within the city of Krakow now allows for me to envision it happening writ large, even on a global scale.
Peace is not a vague, nebulous idea. Peace is an experience and it is work. But with the witness of World Youth Day we know that the work of peace is joyful, even fun. The Catholic Church, by nature of its catholicity, has something to teach the world about peace, and our Church’s young pilgrims have something to teach us about the joy of peacemaking.
Featured Photo: Mariusz Cieszewski, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland; CC-BY-NC-2.0.
 “Homily at Bagington Airport,” as quoted by the U.S. bishops in their document The Challenge of Peace.