June 23 2016 | by

ON JULY 28, 2013, in front of an estimated three million young people and several Latin American leaders gathered on Brazil’s giant Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis announced that the next World Youth Day would be held in Krakow, Poland, in July 2016. As the announcement was made, the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, shared his delight that the event would take place as his country marked the 1,050th anniversary of its conversion to Christianity. He also recalled that it was the Polish pope from Krakow, John Paul II, who first called for a celebration of World Youth Day in the mid 1980s, seeing in young people the hope of the Church as it prepared for the dawn of the third Christian millennium.


City of Saints


The last pope to visit Krakow was Benedict XVI a decade ago, just one year on from the death of his ‘beloved predecessor’ who had already been acclaimed as a saint by thousands of mourners gathered for his funeral in St. Peter’s Square on a windy April morning. John Paul was a hard act to follow in many ways, but perhaps the hardest challenge of all was the journey that Benedict made to the Polish Pope’s hometown, the place where he had lived for four decades until his election to the papacy in 1978. 

The city of Krakow, also called ‘The City of Saints’ on account of the many holy people who have lived there in the course of the centuries, is filled with plaques and signs, churches and museums dedicated to the memory of its most famous son, who was born just 30 miles to the southwest in the town of Wadowice. Chief among the city’s memorial sites are the giant John Paul II Centre, containing a relic of his blood displayed in a glass case, and the nearby Divine Mercy Shrine complex, commemorating the visionary Polish nun, Faustyna Kowalska, who profoundly inspired Karol Wojtyla, and whom he canonised in the year 2000.


Standing firm


The motto of Pope Benedict’s 2006 journey to Poland was Stand Firm In Your Faith, an indication of his concern about the way the staunchly Catholic country seemed to be succumbing to secularist trends sweeping across the former Soviet bloc. There were also fears about a rising nationalism and anti-semitism, together with a loss of the “rich cultural heritage based on Christian values” which Benedict reminded the Polish bishops they had inherited from earlier generations.

Above all there were worries about the way the people of Poland would welcome the new German Pope, given the bitter conflict between their two countries during the Second World War and the near extermination of its thriving Jewish population. Pope John Paul had made a total of nine visits to his homeland, beginning with his memorable 1979 trip, during which an estimated 13 million people turned out to hear his rallying cry to witness to the power of the Cross through all adversity, just as their ancestors had defended the truth of their faith against oppression and persecution.


Wall of death


The fears, however, proved unfounded as the elderly Benedict was enthusiastically welcomed in Warsaw and Krakow, as well as in Wadowice where, he said, he was “filled with emotion” as he followed in the footsteps of his “great predecessor.” The German pontiff also made a powerfully moving visit to the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he prayed for forgiveness and met with Holocaust survivors in front of the ‘Wall of Death’, where so many friends and family members of these survivors had been shot and killed. The infamous death camp is located less than 50 miles away from the city of Krakow and will be included on the itinerary of hundreds of thousands of young people attending the World Youth Day from July 25 to 31.

Between two and three million youngsters are expected to join over a thousand bishops and some 20,000 priests from countries across the globe to take part in the event and to welcome the first Latin-American pope to Poland. Pope Francis is also scheduled to visit Auschwitz, to meet with Jewish and other faith leaders there, and to speak with camp survivors. He will stop to pray in the cell where the Conventual Franciscan friar St. Maximilian Kolbe died after volunteering to take the place of another prisoner who had been condemned to die of starvation in July 1941; the visit will take place to mark this 75th anniversary of Kolbe’s offer. The Franciscan friar died on the following month, on August 14, but the man whose life he saved survived the war, was reunited with his wife, and lived to the age of 93.


Royal Castle


Pope Francis arrives in Poland on July 27, and will begin his trip with an official welcome ceremony and a meeting with President Andrzej Duda at Krakow’s imposing Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, the most visited site in the country. A castle has stood on the hill since the earliest days of the nation, and it was the seat of the kings for over 500 years. The Cathedral there houses the tombs of almost all of the country’s most important historical figures, including that of its first saint Stanislaus, who was martyred in 1079 and whose body was buried below the main altar.

That same evening, the Pope is due to address Poland’s 117-member bishops’ conference, setting out his vision for the future of the Church there. A first encounter with the young people of Poland will take place later as he greets the crowds gathered under the window of the Krakow archbishop’s residence at number 3 Franciszkanska Street, where Cardinal Wojtyla lived from 1963 until his election to the papacy. During every papal visit to the city, John Paul continued to talk, to pray and to sing along with cheering, chanting crowds of young Poles who often waited for hours there and stayed late into the night to be with ‘their pope’. Following his death in April 2005, mourners kept a vigil outside the residence, strewing the ground with flowers, candles, photos and other mementos of his long pontificate. At Pope Francis’ side throughout this papal visit will be the current inhabitant of the residence, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who spent almost 40 years as private secretary to Karol Wojtyla, and who was beside him in the Vatican on the day he died.


The Black Madonna


On July 28th Pope Francis is scheduled to travel by helicopter to Poland’s Jasna Gora national shrine in nearby Czestochowa, northwest of Krakow, for an open-air Mass marking the 1,050th anniversary of the country’s Baptism. Visited by several million pilgrims each year, the shrine contains the ancient icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Black Madonna, crowned as ‘Queen and Protectress’ of Poland in 1652. Pope John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day in Czestochowa with huge crowds of young Catholics from across Eastern Europe in 1991, less than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At this year’s youth event too, up to half a million young participants are expected to travel from neighboring Russia, Ukraine and a number of other former communist countries.

Later in the day, Pope Francis will return to Krakow’s Blonia Park, one of the main venues for the week long World Youth Day events. In the huge grassy expanse, close to the city centre, he’ll preside over a Stations of the Cross liturgy, his first formal encounter with participants who’ll have spent the previous three days attending talks by visiting bishops and celebrating their faith through a packed program of music, prayer, confession and other worship events. Many of them will also have spent the previous week living with Polish families around the country and getting to see something of the life of the local Church through the preceding ‘Days in the Diocese’ program.


Field of Mercy


On Saturday July 30th the Pope will visit the John Paul II Centre and the Divine Mercy shrine to pray before the relics of St. Faustyna Kowalska and to celebrate Mass for Poland’s priests, seminarians and members of religious orders. At the centre dedicated to his predecessor, he’ll hear confessions of some World Youth Day participants before sitting down for a meal with a small group of lucky young men and women from different countries representing the Catholic Church across the globe. On the Saturday evening, he’ll lead the traditional World Youth Day prayer vigil at a huge, specially designed site south east of the city called ‘Campus Misericordiae’ or ‘Field of Mercy’, highlighting the theme of this year’s event: Blessed Are The Merciful, For They Will Obtain Mercy. The choice of this theme, the fifth of the eight Beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount on the shores of Lake Galilee (Mt 5:7), link together the vision of Pope Francis who called for a special jubilee year of mercy, and the focus of Pope John Paul’s final years, as he entrusted the world to God’s divine mercy and instituted the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday to be celebrated the week after Easter.

On the final day of his visit, Pope Francis will preside at the concluding World Youth Day Mass, as well as the recitation of the Angelus at ‘Campus Misericordiae’. He will then have a brief encounter with organizers of the events before boarding the papal plane headed back to Rome. Just before his departure though, the Pope is also expected to announce the venue for the following World Youth Day – so that organizers and participants alike can start making plans for that next major international event.

Updated on September 30 2016