Twice lucky: Young Pole spends time with Pope Francis

Andrej Witas, 26, with his father, Tadeusz, holds the rosary he received from Pope Francis July 28 when they both rode a tram through Krakow, Poland, to the welcoming ceremony for World Youth Day. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Andrej Witas, 26, with his father, Tadeusz, holds the rosary he received from Pope Francis July 28 when they both rode a tram through Krakow, Poland, to the welcoming ceremony for World Youth Day. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

By Dennis Sadowski

KRAKOW, Poland — For the second day in a row, Andrej Witas got to spend some time with Pope Francis at World Youth Day.

Witas, 26, sat in his wheelchair with his father in a special section for people with disabilities to the left of the stage at the Way of the Cross in Blonia Park July 29. The previous day, he joined Pope Francis on his tram ride through the city. He was selected to by Klika, a Catholic organization sponsored by the Dominican order for people with disabilities their family members and friends.

Pope Francis greets a young man while riding a tram to reach the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony with young people in Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland, July 28. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, pool)

Pope Francis greets a young man while riding a tram to reach the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony with young people in Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland, July 28. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, pool)

“It was a spirited experience,” Witas told Catholic News Service the tram ride was “a spirited experience.”

“I will never forget it,” he said, beaming.

Witas’ father, Tadeusz, pulled a brown leather-like pouch from his pocket. Inside was a rosary, a gift from Pope Francis.

Tadeusz Witas said Pope Francis was the second pope his son had met. In 2008, he met Pope Benedict XVI in Rome as part of a program organized by a local foundation.

The Witas family planned to see the pope one more time: at Field of Mercy July 30 as the overnight vigil for World Youth Day pilgrims gets underway.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

Replay: Today’s papal visit to Auschwitz

Since many Americans were sleeping when Pope Francis visited the Auschwitz concentration camp earlier today, here is an easy-to-skim look at how the event unfolded via Twitter:




 




 

[Read our full story here:]

 

[Video:]

Poles can’t help comparing Pope Francis to their favorite son

Pope Francis prays in the chapel of the Black Madonna at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, July 28. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka, pool)

Pope Francis prays in the chapel of the Black Madonna at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, July 28. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka, pool)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

CZESTOCHOWA, Poland — Jurek Najgebauer attended Pope Francis’ Mass at the Jasna Gora national monastery. Although police said about 200,000 people attended the Mass, Najgebauer said there were far fewer than when St. John Paul II was there, when there was “no spare place anywhere.”

He said Poles would appreciate Pope Francis’ appeal to humility and simplicity, and against being “attracted by power, by grandeur, by appearances.” However, he also said that some might be offended that the Argentine pope had chosen to stand, rather than kneel, before the fabled Black Madonna icon in Jasna Gora’s Lady Chapel July 28.

“We respect Pope Francis, but he’ll always be a guest here, and there can be no comparison with John Paul II, who was Polish in blood and bone and had a divine gift, as head of the church, in being able to speak directly to each of us.”

Grazyna Swierczewska, a Catholic from Warsaw, said she also believed Pope Francis was being well received in Poland and had chosen his words well “at a time when there’s so much division and aggressiveness, lack of love and faith.”

However, she added that reactions to the pope were a lot less enthusiastic than under his Polish predecessor, who had been able to “speak directly to the nation.”

Pope John Paul II prays in front of the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland in this 1999 photo. (CNS photo courtesy Pope John Paul II Cultural Center)

Pope John Paul II prays in front of the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland in this 1999 photo. (CNS photo courtesy Pope John Paul II Cultural Center)

“Of course, we’re listening and considering what he says in our own way — but when John Paul II preached, he caught us with every word,” said Swierczewska, who left the Polish capital at 4 a.m. to reach Jasna Gora.

“We’re still here, in this special place for Poles. But the atmosphere is clearly quite different now.”

A Catholic priest from Belarus, who was in Czestochowa during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in May 2006, said he also thought the pontiff’s homily had been well received.

“The pope understands people here because he understands the church,” said Father Pawel Wikary, who came with a large group of Belarusian Catholics. “People in our region know what it means to be considered small and humble alongside the world’s big powers. So his carefully appeal to unity and identity will suit people well.”

However, recently retired Auxiliary Bishop Antoni Dlugosz of Czestochowa said he believed Francis had a “deep understanding of popular feelings,” as a Jesuit and former parish priest.

He added that prayers recited at the Mass for Poland, on the 1050th anniversary of its Christian conversion, had been “well expressed and welcomed.”

“Coming from Buenos Aires, he knows about wealth and poverty and is fearless in asserting the need for divine mercy, whatever the media may say,” Bishop Dlugosz said. “The pope’s words were concrete and challenging, and I think he’s been well prepared when it come to the situation in Poland and the rest of Europe.”

Downpour doesn’t dampen enthusiasm of WYD pilgrims

Pilgrims sporting ponchos the color of World Youth Day did not have their spirits dampened by rain July 26. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Pilgrims sporting ponchos the color of World Youth Day did not have their spirits dampened by rain July 26. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

By Dennis Sadowski

KRAKOW, Poland — What’s a little summer downpour among friends?

Priscilla Ho and her friends from St. Francis Xavier Church in Vancouver, British Columbia, took an afternoon thundershower in stride as they made their way through Krakow’s Old City to the opening Mass for World Youth Day.

“It shouldn’t bother anybody,” she said near the city’s famed Planty, a park that encircles the Old City. “I’m here to get to know God a little better and be inspired by the city of Pope John Paul II.”

Seas of pilgrims in bright red, blue and yellow ponchos — the colors of World Youth Day — made their way through the city in waves toward Blonia Park for the opening Mass.

Doreen Kempf, 24 and her cousin, Chiara Titze, 17, both of Trier, Germany, stayed dry under red ponchos. “The rain doesn’t hurt,” Kempf said.

“The people are from different countries and we practice peace and we have the same belief in God and the same values. That’s all that matters,” she said.

Lucas Krobeth and a group of 13 of his friends from Klagenfurt, Austria, stood outside of the Basilica of the Holy Trinity as the last raindrops fell before walking to the Mass.

“I’m here because there are so many young people who pray and we will pray together,” he said. “We pray together and you see you are not alone praying to God.”

Pilgrims jammed buses and trams and joined special programs of music, faith-sharing and study in parks and squares across the city in the hours before the Mass. North of the central city, in Krowoderski Park, a group of about 100 young people from France listened to a midday concert of contemporary inspirational music. Nearby another 20 young people involved in the Global Catholic Climate Movement gathered for a prayer service to inaugurate the World Youth Day eco-village.

They planned to spend time gathering signatures on a petition — the same one endorsed by Pope Francis — asking world leaders to take immediate action on climate change and to protect the planet. Their goal is 1 million signatures; the GCCM reports about 900,000 names to date.

Allen Ottaro, 32, executive director of Catholic Youth Movement for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, said he wanted to bring the concerns expressed by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis to as many young people as possible.

“In his time here he (St. John Paul) spent a lot of the time in nature, hiking in the mountains and skiing,” Ottaro told Catholic News Service.

“Now in 2016 we have Pope Francis, who chose the name Francis to show his concern for the ecology. We can have this opportunity to reach out to young people to continue the mission of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis,” he said.

Pilgrims walk along the Wisla River in Krakow, Poland, on their way to the open Mass for World Youth Day July 26. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Pilgrims walk along the Wisla River in Krakow, Poland, on their way to the open Mass for World Youth Day July 26. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

A few tram stops from the park, at rondo Mogilskie, Gavin Gima, 25, who lives in the Diocese of Miri, Malaysia, was making his way to meet friends from his homeland for the opening Mass after spending the day exploring Krakow.

Gima is nearly finished with coursework in dentistry and said he was “still sorting out what God wants me to do.” Coming to World Youth Day, he said, might help provide an answer.

Nearer to the Mass site at Blonia Park, as the clouds thickened and grew darker, pilgrims seemed to take over the city. At one tram about 30 Belgians were dancing and singing. At another stop outside the main post office, a group of friends from Alliance of Mercy Parish in Lisbon Portugal, took cover under a tram stop shelter as the rains hit.

Jose Landim, 27, one of Lisbon pilgrims, said it was Pope Francis that attracted the 14 people with whom he was traveling. “You can see we’re diverse,” he said, noting that the pope appeals to young people of many different backgrounds. He made a point to say those in the group had parents who were born in Ghana, Cape Verde, Brazil and elsewhere.

Suddenly more thunder rumbled over the city. It didn’t dissuade a group of Canadians passing Landim and friends. They cheered. Blonia Park was ahead.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

 

 

Why a poor rural Texas town captured the pope’s attention

penitas

Catholic youth from towns near Peñitas, Texas cheer while kicking off World Youth Day July 26, 2016. Even though the pope is in Poland, he sent a video message specifically to the group gathered in Texas, even though many from the impoverished area can’t travel. (CNS photo by Amber Donaldson)

By Brenda Nettles Riojas

MISSION, Texas — As World Youth Day kicked off in Poland today, a group of Catholic youth in Texas, some without the money to travel to Poland and others without the legal papers to travel there, got the next best thing: Pope Francis came to them via video, with a message tailored for the community there.

Why did the rural area known as Pueblo de Palmas, near Peñitas get such an honor? Why would the Holy Father send a message to the people of a rural area that some consider “insignificant”?

Three missionary sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who have been living and helping in the area for 12 years will tell you that it’s because the people of God here have a deep faith that is not daunted by poverty or other hardships they may endure.

Father Michael Montoya, a Missionary of Jesus priest, is pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Peñitas, Texas and its three missionary churches. He said the idea of connecting the youth in the area to the more global event in such a personal way started off as an idea to help the young people in one of the poorest areas in the country see how they are connected with the church and other young people from around the world.

Given the poverty levels in the community and their immigration status, it is impossible for most to travel. For those in Peñitas, explains Father Montoya, traveling from their homes to church comes with risk. Some fear that if they are pulled over for something such as a minor traffic infraction, they could be deported. Father Montoya points to what he refers to as a “military presence” in the area. There is a no shortage of local police, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, U.S. border patrol agents and National Guard patrolling the area located just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s a constant reminder to the people that something is not right. We live so close to the wall that divides families, it affects self-identity. All the images we receive from the outside are negative. It’s always connected to the border, always connected to the things we cannot do,” said Father Montoya.

Add to this the poverty and lack of basic infrastructure in some neighborhoods that do not even have a sewage system or water lines.

“There are many circumstances,” said Father Montoya “that make it difficult for the people. They think they are forgotten.”

But they are not forgotten. Today they are celebrating the Holy Father who prepared a personal message for the youth of the diocese.

“The parish of St. Anne is beyond happy. Things like this don’t happen to a place like Peñitas,” said Father Montoya. “The pope is sending a message to us! I think that is proof enough, that the love of the church for our poor people is really palpable, it’s real.”

“God has certainly worked wonders,” said Sister Carolyn Kosub, one of the three missionary sisters who arrived in the area along with Sister Emily Jocson and Sister Fatima Santiago in 2004 to help rebuild the community after it was devastated by a tornado.

A project they started in an under-served area blossomed and eventually led to the building of St. Anne Catholic Church in 2009. They never dreamed it would become a mother church of a parish four years later, or that one day, on the feast of St. Anne, the Holy Father would send a personal message to the youth of that parish.

Father Montoya says when thinking of the honor the area has received, we need to be reminded that the infant Jesus chose to be born in the small town of Bethlehem and not a city center. So, a great event can happen in an “out of the way” place.

“Not everyone can travel to Poland for World Youth Day,” said Father Montoya, “but we believe that even in our area, a profound and meaningful encounter with the world’s youth can be organized.”

“It’s a reimagining,” said Father Montoya, “of who we are. We are not defined by the border, we are defined by our culture and by our faith.”

This is truly a testament that the mercy of God knows no limits. It should also serve as a reminder to each of us that no matter where God places us, no matter where we stand in the world, we each matter and must do what we can to foster a “culture of encounter,” as Pope Francis has often said.

Father Montoya said “the mercy of God knows no limits within a church that knows no borders,” and the encounter in the rural town in Texas shows that mercy and grace can reach “even the remotest part of the world. We don’t have to be in the center of power to be recognized by the church.”

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Nettles Riojas is the editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

Grace: When sex worker advocates meet the archbishop

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, greets Babalwa Matikinca, an area manager for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force. The encounter took place in the Global Village of the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, greets Babalwa Matikinca, an area manager for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force. The encounter took place in the Global Village of the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

By Paul Jeffrey

DURBAN, South Africa — At an international conference about AIDS that brought 18,000 people to this seaside city, it was the big things that usually drew attention: a plenary where the actress Charlize Theron said sexism and racism prevent us from ending AIDS, a media scrum surrounding Sir Elton John and Prince Harry as they pleaded for people to get tested, even a press conference where researchers discussed arcane vaccine trials that could change the face of the epidemic. But sometimes it’s the small events that tell a larger story.

Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. He’s a rather prominent guy. But he’s fairly humble, so when he stopped by the Interfaith Networking Zone in the conference’s Global Village July 19, not many people paid attention. He chatted with folks, but then needed to leave for a press conference.

The Global Village was a wild maze of displays, booths and discussion areas sponsored by special interest groups representing all sorts of people touched by AIDS. Right across from the interfaith area was the Sex Workers Networking Zone. Archbishop Makgoba stopped there and introduced himself to the women.

Among those he greeted was Babalwa Matikinca, who works in the Eastern Cape for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT). She told me she had been having an emotional day, and when the archbishop suddenly appeared, she started crying.

“I was so grateful. It was a blessing. I was happy. I was happy. I was happy,” she said.

Matikinca does education and helps run support groups for sex workers, and she said the church needs to cross into their world more often.

A mannequin wears a hat crafted from condoms July 20 during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

A mannequin wears a hat crafted from condoms July 20 during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

“Sex workers are often operating in hideaway zones, their work unknown to their family because there is a lot of stigma. They feel alone. The church should be a place where they can find comfort and support to help them cope. Just like Jesus, who, when people wanted to stone a sex worker, said that only those who hadn’t sinned could do it,” she said. “Jesus loves these women. His church should be a place where they feel welcome. They are responsible women, working hard to support their families. They often want to make an offering to the church but they feel blocked from going there.”

Nadia Gubangxa was there also, and the archbishop recognized her as one of his parishioners from Cape Town. She’s the operations manager for SWEAT and agreed churches have work to do.

“Our church has had a bad reputation with the women in the past. We were still stuck in the old ways. But the archbishop is very focused on HIV and AIDS and on looking at new initiatives to reach out. It’s a very fresh, different approach to that of most church leaders in South Africa,” she said.

“It was a positive thing that he came over here. He holds a big position, so hopefully other people will start emulating what he is doing. People will feel safer going to church. You’ll feel you can actually speak to a religious advisor for counsel and not be discriminated against.”

Ruth Morgan Thomas, a British woman who coordinates the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which has members in 77 countries, praised the archbishop for his visit.

“Many faith leaders are recognizing the human rights of sex workers in our communities, recognizing that we have agency. Not everyone needs to agree with our choices, but they need to respect us as human beings,” she told me.

“Yet this morning I also met some Christians who were demonstrating outside the conference, telling us that Jesus hates us and that prostitution will harden my heart. So we still have a long way to go. How do you respect the human being in front of you if you condemn them as a sinner?”

Archbishop Makgoba’s visit set a different tone. That’s not surprising, said Dominican Sister Alison Munro, who runs the AIDS program of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“The archbishop is wonderful. I have always admired the way he is willing to stand up for this loving approach to people at the margins, not just for the Anglican church but for the entire religious community in South Africa,” she said.

Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, South Africa, speaks at a press conference during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, South Africa, speaks at a press conference during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Archbishop Makgoba told me the encounter “created a wealth of emotions. I need to go and process it. But it is by God’s grace that we move from the church into the real mission field. So my reflection starts with repentance. There are places we have created unconscious barriers that we need to transcend.”

After the archbishop left the conference, the dialogue continued. Lyn van Rooyen, director of the Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa, which trains Catholic and Protestant church workers on HIV and AIDS around the world, sat down to talk with some of the women the archbishop had met, and they agreed to a series of future encounters between sex workers and pastoral agents.

Sex workers, who are 10 times more likely than the general population to contract HIV, have long been a key demographic in the struggle against AIDS, along with men who have sex with men and injecting drug users. Stigmatizing or criminalizing them are widely seen as counterproductive, yet for religious leaders with narrow limits on acceptable behavior, reaching out to these and other groups at the margins has stretched their understandings of sin and grace. Crossing from their religious space to the world where real people struggle isn’t easy.

God, however, seems to have already made the journey. The women told me that the SWEAT office in Cape Town has a weekly support group for Christian sex workers, where participants share their struggles, read scripture together and pray for each other. The women run the group themselves.

– – –

Jeffrey is a freelance photojournalist who covered the International AIDS Conference for Catholic News Service.

Anggia Ermarini, a Muslim activist from Indonesia, gets a lesson in African dancing at the Interfaith Networking Zone during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, July 20. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Anggia Ermarini, a Muslim activist from Indonesia, gets a lesson in African dancing at the Interfaith Networking Zone during the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, July 20. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

 

At Krakow airport, volunteers sport smile, deep sense of faith

Paulina Tempinska of Krakow, Poland, helps a World Youth Day at John Paul II Airport. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Paulina Tempinska of Krakow, Poland, helps a World Youth Day at John Paul II Airport. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

By Dennis Sadowski

KRAKOW, Poland — If it wasn’t Michel Zak’s smile that World Youth Day pilgrims noticed as they arrived at Krakow’s John Paul II Airport, they were sure to see the enormous baby blue foam hand he was waving.

Zak, 25, who lives in France, wanted to make sure the first impression the pilgrims had was positive, and if it took waving a strange looking hand, so be it.

One of a crew of 70 young adult volunteers welcoming people from around the world to World Youth Day, Zak said he had been helping French-speaking people communicate with their Polish hosts. He said it was a way to live out his faith in a diverse world.

Volunteers were easy to spot and not just for their smiles. They wore bright blue polo shirts with a large “V” emblazoned on the back in white; a small World Youth Day logo was on the front.

Jacinta Ching of Sydney was handing out single-decade rosaries made of bright red and gold rings and a reproduction of the cross St. John Paul II carried throughout his priesthood.

“Seeing all the people coming in sure gives a lot of excitement,” said Ching, 26, who works in the treasury department for New South Wales. “It’s really cool to be here as the world is coming here. Coming here from a secular country and every couple of blocks you have a Catholic church in a country that is unapologetically Catholic is inspiring.”

Jacinta Ching of Australia, Augustin Woronoff of Belgium, Jeanne Danson of Switzerland, Lucia Hoppanova and Marianna Burbova, both of Slovakia, were among 70 volunteers greeting World Youth Day pilgrims at John Paul II Airport in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Jacinta Ching of Australia, Augustin Woronoff of Belgium, Jeanne Danson of Switzerland, Lucia Hoppanova and Marianna Burbova, both of Slovakia, were among 70 volunteers greeting World Youth Day pilgrims at John Paul II Airport in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

The volunteers included young adults from Belgium, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, New Zealand and elsewhere. Several said they wanted to step up because World Youth Day doesn’t happen every year.

Paulina Tempinska, 20, of Krakow, who is studying law at Jagiellonian University, said she found the time volunteering — 10 hours and counting July 24 — worthwhile.

“I love helping people. I love to see how they react. I love to see their emotions. I feel so blessed when I help them. I also want to meet people who believe in God,” she said before returning to the information booth to answer questions from pilgrims.

Jeanne Danson, 29, of Switzerland explained that her reason for volunteering focused on her faith and returning something to the church, especially when her life is filled with work requirements.

Danson, a pilgrim to World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero in 2013, said she wanted to see what it was like working “from the inside” to see what was going on. What she said she found was God working on the inside.

“That’s the mystery of these days. There’s so many individuals really. We’re all here for Jesus. God is so big. God is so vast. When you listen to people and even if they live so far away, God lives in their lives. God is everywhere.”

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

World Youth Day pilgrims from Lima, Peru, pose for a photo in front of an image of St. John Paul II after arriving July 23 at John Paul II International Airport in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

World Youth Day pilgrims from Lima, Peru, pose for a photo in front of an image of St. John Paul II after arriving July 23 at John Paul II International Airport in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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