It’s hard to believe that World Youth Day has come and gone already. I had such an amazing experience in Krakow with the Lancaster Diocese. Our pilgrimage began as you would expect; the coach was running late arriving at the Phantom Winger Pub on the 24th of July as the rain began to pour and as a car show was taking place in the car park. Of all the days to have a car show, they choose the day of the WYD Pilgrimage departure!

After waiting for the group to arrive from Castlerigg with Fr John Moriarty, who was our spiritual leader for the trip, the 48 pilgrims of the Lancaster Diocese united in Preston and set off for the long, long, long journey to Krakow in Poland. We had had a few meetings prior to the trip so we knew each other rather well before the journey began. The 37 hours spent on the coach from the UK to Poland allowed us to get to know each other a little better! It was not the swiftest journey, but at least it gave us the opportunity to say many a cheeky decade of the Rosary as we travelled.

After a ferry crossing from Dover to Calais and a journey across Europe, we arrived in Poland on the evening of the 25th of July and attended a Mass in the bursa where we were staying, located right across the street from Błonia Park. This was the main venue for the masses and the services that would take place during the week. After a late tea and a chat with our smaller groups, we settled down for our first night in Poland and our first sleep in a bed since travelling across the continent two days earlier.

Our first full day in Poland was spent exploring the city of Krakow. We went off in our small groups and during the day, we walked through the city streets which were already packed with pilgrims from all corners of the globe. It was incredible to see the impact of World Youth Day and the importance of faith this early on in the week. On the evening of the 26th, we attended the first big event for World Youth Day. The Opening Ceremony and the Holy Mass took place in Błonia Park in the pouring rain and the Lancaster Diocese arrived in style, wearing the bright red ponchos provided by the World Youth Day organisers. Only the Lancaster Diocese could make these look good!

The Mass itself was a wonderful way to begin World Youth Day officially. It gave us the opportunity to speak to other pilgrims from different countries, swapping stories and trinkets whenever possible. There was a poignant moment for me when the Mass came to an end and the clouds parted, revealing the most amazing sunset. I think that certainly set the mood for the rest of the pilgrimage; it was as though God himself knew that he wanted us to enjoy the prayerful times in Poland.

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After the Opening Ceremony, the Lancaster Diocese had a venture into the city for the evening. We dispersed with our newly-formed friendship groups and went out to soak up the ambience of Krakow by night with pilgrims from all over the world. There was singing, cheering and good vibes all around. The Pilgrimage of Mercy took place the next day. We took a tram and joined the many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to travel to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary. There, we processed through the John Paul II Centre, and saw the vestments worn by Pope John Paul II when an attempt was made on his life in 1981.

In the evening, we travelled to Tauron Stadium for a Youth Festival Concert. Unfortunately, the arena was full to capacity so we were unable to actually enter the building. There was a live-feed of the musicians who performed inside, so we could listen to the music as we mingled with the pilgrims. I managed to get a sneaky selfie with the Pontiff (cardboard cut-out, of course!)

For the next two days, we attended Catechesis and had a lot of time to meet with pilgrims to discuss the importance of faith among the young people. We had talks from a bishop from Australia and a Cardinal from Tonga and had the opportunity to go to confession and attend Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Welcome Mass took place on the evening of the 28th in Błonia Park. The Pope arrived after travelling on his own personal Polish tram (the Tram del Papa) and greeted the enthusiastic pilgrims who chanted “Papa Francesco!” or, if you were part of the Lancaster Diocese, “We love you, Francis! We do!” After a morning of Catechesis on the 29th, we attended the Way of the Cross. The stations were acted out, which gave a great sense of emotional realism with incredible live music throughout.

Saturday was the biggest day for the World Youth Day pilgrims. It saw 1.8 million young people make their way to Campus Misericordiae for the Vigil Mass. Where else could you be in the company of this many young people and not have any trouble whatsoever? The atmosphere was electric; to be able to share this experience so many likeminded people was something I will never forget. We fell asleep to the sound of praise and worship being performed on the distant stage and the sight of several shooting stars wheeling overhead. It was an uncomfortable night’s sleep, I must confess, but on the Sunday morning, everyone was in high spirits. This was partly due to the fact that the group was pleased that they had accomplished the feat of camping outdoors with 1.8 million poeple, but mainly due to the praise and worship group singing a favourite song of the Lancaster Diocese from the film Sister Act! The journey back from the Sunday Mass after the announcement for WYD 2019 in Panama was memorable indeed. We were caught in not one, not two, but three thunderstorms!

After 12 miles of walking ankle deep through waterlogged roads and enduring high winds, thunder and lightning, we were blessed with warm food, hot showers and comfortable duvets and mattresses back at the bursa. Everybody slept very well that evening and enjoyed the 8:30am lie-in the next day! The last few days spent in Krakow were used as time to explore the city once again. On Monday 1 st August we visited Wawel Castle, had a very good lunch in a local restaurant and went out for an evening drink in our groups, discussing what we had spiritually gained during the week. This was after visiting the relics of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and the relics of St Therese of Lisieux. On the Tuesday, we had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a sombre experience, and many people said that they were glad they had the chance to go despite initial reservations about visiting. I found the whole experience deeply moving. As we walked around the camps, a group of Jewish visitors began to sing a solemn hymn in Hebrew and said a prayer for the Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz. In response, we made our own tribute later in the form of silent prayer and spent some time that night in the bursa reflecting on the events of the day.

Our journey home commenced on the Wednesday. We said goodbye to the staff, thanking them for their hospitality and kindness during our stay, and made the 37-hour coach trip back to Lancashire. Obviously, we managed to do a few more cheeky decades on the way! World Youth Day in Krakow was an experience I will never forget. I have returned spiritually strengthened, and I have made a lot of new friends that I feel blessed to know. A few of us are planning to meet up regularly and I can’t wait to see my friends again. The overall theme of World Youth Day 2016 was “Blessed are the merciful” (this was the main chorus of the official song which was heard at every possible location).

Pope Francis’ message to the young people was as follows: 

We have come here from different parts of the world, from different continents, countries, languages, cultures and peoples. Some of us are sons and daughters of nations that may be at odds and engaged in various conflicts or even open war. Others of us come from countries that may be at “peace”, free of war and conflict, where most of the terrible things occurring in our world are simply a story on the evening news. Some situations seem distant until in some way we touch them. We don’t appreciate certain things because we only see them on the screen of a cell phone or a computer. But when we come into contact with life, with people’s lives, not just images on a screen, something powerful happens... The times we live in do not call for young “couch potatoes”, but for young people with shoes, or better, boots laced… Today Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, is calling you, you, and you to leave your mark on history. He, who is life, is asking each of you to leave a mark that brings life to your own history and that of many others. He, who is truth, is asking you to abandon the paths of rejection, division and emptiness. Are you up to this? Are you up to this? What answer will you give, and I’d like to see it, with your hands and with your feet, to the Lord, who is the way, the truth and the life? Are you up to this?

Thank you to the Lancaster Diocese for making this World Youth Day an amazing one. I’m already saving up for WYD 2019; Panama, here I come!

Lizzie, 24, Blackpool