By Elliot Williams
VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis released his annual message for World Youth Day last week, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience as a pilgrim four years ago. The trip was surreal. I had barely traveled anywhere in the United States on my own, and certainly had never been abroad. Yet, I refused to be held back by the fear of the unknown, so in the summer of 2011, I went along with Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald of my local Philadelphia Archdiocese to Madrid for World Youth Day. As a leader in an archdiocesan youth group, I was blessed enough to be chosen as one of five students to embark on the pilgrimage.
I kept a journal, took pictures, and reveled in the bliss of Europe as we traveled through Lourdes, France; Lisbon, Portugal and Burgos, Spain, visiting sites where the Blessed Mother appeared to those suffering from poverty and war. Throughout the 10-day excursion, we spent many hours listening to motivational speakers who spread messages of love, self-control, and the value of young lives — much like the message Pope Francis shared with the youth in preparation for WYD 2016, to be held in Krakow, Poland next summer.
Our trip culminated with a message from Pope Benedict XVI, which focused primarily on building faith. Four years later, the message from Pope Francis suggests a resemblance to the former, but centers mostly on the Beatitudes, and seeking happiness through the Lord. For those attending WYD in Krakow, this spiritual journey will be life changing, unprecedented for most young people, especially for those who have never seen the Holy Father speak in public before.
I will never forget camping out on a massive lawn of soil with a sea of fellow pilgrims, and watching as the sky turned from a promising blue, to a menacing red, threatening to end the entire event. Pope Benedict XVI spoke for as long as he could before the wind and the rain made it nearly impossible for him to continue (or for his cap to stay on his head). The wild storm persisted, after temperatures had peaked in the 100s (Fahrenheit) a few hours earlier.
I hardly fell asleep that night. Scared, wet and confused, I laid cocooned in a sleeping bag as the pope’s words about remaining strong, despite the rain, churning in my head. After a long night, we awoke to an unexpectedly clear sky. I dare say it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Firefighters were circling the field, spraying pilgrims with refreshing water to keep us cool. Pope Benedict’s message about remaining firm in the faith was coming to life right before our eyes. The brightest days often come after the stormiest nights, right? Quite the cliché if you ask me. However, I believe that everyone who witnessed that fascinating event four years ago was profoundly impacted.
Now, a third-year student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, I am interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau, about a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. What can I say? I just can’t stay away from pontifical goings-on. I would be lying if I said that WYD 2011 isn’t the reason I’m sitting here in Rome, writing this post. Perhaps it is the beauty of Christ, which Pope Francis often speaks of, that so attracts me. Or maybe it is the delicious food that has brought me to Rome.
In either case, I believe the real answer can be found in the remarks of St. John Paul II — who created World Youth Day 30 years ago — spoken at WYD 2000, “It is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise.”
I urge those attending WYD 2016 to keep an open heart, to embrace the universal message of change that Pope Francis hopes to share, and in case there is a nasty thunderstorm… pack a poncho.
Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.