By Allyson Escobar     9/14/2016

“Do you want a complete life? Start by letting yourself be open and attentive! Because happiness is sown and blossoms in mercy—that is [Christ’s] answer, His offer, His challenge, His adventure: mercy. Mercy always has a youthful face…all together, then, we ask the Lord: launch us on the adventure of mercy!”

These were the words in Pope Francis’ opening address at World Youth Day 2016, spoken to a crowd of at least 3 million young pilgrims gathered in July, at Blonia Park in historic Krakow, Poland.

For the millions of youth, young adults, religious and laypersons present at World Youth Day, the experience was both physically and mentally challenging and unforgettable.

“I don’t know if you could ever truly prepare,” laughed Armando Cervantes, Director of Youth and Young Adults for the Diocese of Orange, who led a group of 9 pilgrims from the diocese through France, the Czech Republic, and Poland. “It was crazy. You’re walking in the same place where so many things, so much history happened. In the midst of this atrocious mess that occurred, witnessing the beauty of faith and power of martyrdom.”

Cervantes and his group of both students and young adults spent 6 months prior to the trip gathering in prayer and getting to know one another, as the departure to Europe came closer.

“We were reflecting on scripture, learning about [Pope Francis’] theme of mercy, so that by the time we walked onto the plane, our hearts were prepared,” Cervantes shared.

In a matter of days, the group traveled through historical sites in Paris, Notre Dame, Lisieux, Prague, and various cities in Poland; including Renaissance-heavy Krakow, St. John Paul II’s hometown Wadowice, and the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.

“We were walking around 15 miles a day—by the time it was the final vigil mass [at WYD], everyone was well seasoned.”

Jessica Galaviz, a pilgrim with the Diocese of Orange, also reflected on the importance of the pilgrimage in cultivating her spiritual life.

“I was both excited and uneasy, especially with the stories of terrorist attacks unfolding,” Galaviz shared. “But I never questioned my decision to go…I was exhausted [from all the walking], but also excited to come back and share with my family and friends the whole experience. I [returned] fired up to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all those I encounter.”

She added, “I am still continuing to reflect and process Pope Francis’ words—following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes—that I know will give fruit to my life.”

Cervantes also remembered being in the presence of the Pope, who came from the Vatican to Poland to celebrate Mass and speak directly to the millions of pilgrims, in a tradition starting back with John Paul II in 1986.

“It was such a powerful moment for our faith and for each other. It was very discipleship-oriented,” he recalled. “We were meeting thousands of Catholics from all over the world…praying together, with the Pope present. You cold not help but feel that unity and camaraderie—the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

Fr. Mark Cruz, chaplain of California State University at Fullerton’s Titan Catholic club, also went on the World Youth Day pilgrimage with a group of faithful.

“Poland really reflects Catholicism, especially with Saints Faustina, Maximilian Kolbe, and John Paul II. The atmosphere was so welcoming and hospitable,” Fr. Mark shared.

As a priest regularly working with youth and young adults, Fr. Mark had a unique perspective ushering the group’s pilgrimage.

“I personally took it as a form of retreat for myself. Even after so many miles of walking, it was so meaningful. I was standing there [in Bolonia Park] with thousands of young people, I had goosebumps thinking, this is the Church today—and these young people are the future.”

Father especially wanted the youth to understand Pope Francis’ message of not being a “couch potato,” and coming to know a forgiving, healing, and merciful God.

“We made it clear from the beginning that this wasn’t a tour, vacation, or escapade…but a spiritual journey,” he said. “Sure, we endured trials—missed flights, lost luggage—but it did not compare to the special encounter with God among our youth. It was a great instrument and catalyst for evangelization.”

Bianca Lenski, a first-time WYD pilgrim from the diocese, said she enjoyed accompanying others and discovering herself along the journey.

“I ran into my youth leader from high school…there were a lot of tears, and smiles, and hugs,” Lenski recalled. “It was incredible to me that we were able to see each other half way across the world, even though I probably hadn’t seen her for 5 or 6 years. It made me realize how there are key people along the way who really shape your faith and make a difference. It made me appreciate God bringing us all together.”

Agreed Cervantes, “What I love about World Youth Day is that God always finds a way to lead us where we need to be.”

The next World Youth Day, in 2019, will take place in Panama City. It will be the major holy event’s first time in Central America.

“I realize that the journey doesn’t end with the last day [of WYD],” Lenski finished. “I strive to live in a merciful and giving manner. I want people to know God through me, and be a channel of His mercy.”