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World Youth Day came to Washington on July 30, as about 1,300 young adults gathered on the campus of The Catholic University of America for the Kraków in the Capital festival held to coincide with Pope Francis’s celebration of World Youth Day in Poland with more than one million pilgrims from around the world. The daylong event in the nation’s capital gave young adults who were unable to travel to Kraków, Poland the opportunity to enter into the World Youth Day experience through opportunities for prayer, catechesis, fellowship, and a taste of Polish culture.

“I always imagine World Youth Day as a very exclusive event; if you had the time and resources you could go,” said Evan Wescott, a recent graduate of Catholic University who is now working as a campus minister at Duke University. “The fact that the archdiocese has made it available for everyone to participate in…is a powerful way to connect in prayer.”

At the opening prayer service for the stateside celebration of World Youth Day, Jonathan Lewis, the director of Young Adult Ministry and Evangelization Initiatives for the Archdiocese of Washington, welcomed the young adults gathered in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“Today prayer shatters time and space to unite us in solidarity with our fellow pilgrims and Pope Francis,” Lewis said.

While some people traveled a few blocks to get there, and others traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, Lewis said, “Each of us has a call today to make a pilgrimage of the heart.”

During the prayer service, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville spoke to the young adults about the need to have love in their hearts during this difficult time in our world. He encouraged them to embark on a peaceful “spiritual crusade” with an army of young people that has Christ as the “future and rock.”

“I cannot stop asking you to pray for peace around the world, which is the fruit of justice,” Bishop Dorsonville said.

The pilgrims gathered in the basilica prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet in five different languages: English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Polish.

Following the prayer service, the pilgrims went to the first of two catechetical sessions. They were able to chose from 10 different options, including a panel on forming community as young adults, a talk titled “Mercy Without Borders,” a talk about the Corporal Works of Mercy and talks in Spanish and American Sign Language.

During the panel about building community as young adults, titled “Where Do I Belong?,” Susan Timoney, the secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns in the Archdiocese of Washington, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden, and a young adult named Juan Rodriguez discussed their different experiences and took questions from the audience.

Rodriguez, who took a sabbatical from his job as a NASA engineer to travel the world and live with a Christian community in Brazil, spoke about that experience, saying, “When people see that harmony, being of one mind, one heart, one soul…people are drawn to that.”

Bishop Madden pointed out that forming community is always more effective when it comes from the young adults, rather than when it is something that is imposed by someone else.

“You are not the Church of tomorrow, you are the Church of today,” said Timoney, who encouraged the young adults to take active roles in their parishes.

During the second catechetical session, one of the talks was given by Jesuit Father James Martin, an editor at large for America magazine. His talk was titled, “Jesus: Face of the Father’s Mercy,” and he told the young adults, “to understand Jesus’ approach to mercy, we need to encounter the real Jesus,” who is both fully human and fully divine.

Father Martin said people often do not fully comprehend both of these elements of Jesus at the same time. He emphasized that Jesus was not just God pretending to be human, but he “experienced everything that human beings do.” He pricked his fingers, bumped his head, watched sunrises, experienced sexual longings, laughed, cried, and got stomach aches, Father Martin said.

However, focusing just on Jesus’ humanity is incomplete, Father Martin said, noting that Jesus’s divinity can often be a stumbling block in our culture. While some people want to confine Jesus to being just a wise man, Father Martin said, “You can’t tame Jesus.”

While people often think of Jesus’ teachings as coming from divine inspiration, Father Martin said, “They also flow from his human experience,” and the priest noted, “His mercy is a divine mercy, but it is also a human mercy.”

During the catechetical sessions, young adults also had the opportunity to pray at Adoration, attend Confession, and venerate the relics of two patron saints of World Youth Day, St. John Paul II and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Catholic Relief Services had also set up a simulation of the refugee experience, where each person was given a card with a name, age, country, and background of a refugee, and was taken through different stations about what people encounter during the refugee experience.

Christine Ruppert, who works with the immigrant population in Washington, particularly appreciated this piece of the day.

“I think those stories and those faces are really important to bring to any Catholic conversation,” Ruppert said.

After finishing with catechesis, Kraków in the Capital pilgrims had the opportunity to experience Polish culture through food, dancing, and music. While some people enjoyed pierogies (dumplings) and kielbasa sausage outside, others gathered in the exhibit hall to watch the Ojczyzna Polish Dancers. Some even joined in the Polka dancing.

In the evening, the young adults gathered inside of the Basilica for Stations of the Cross and a closing Mass, both celebrated by Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. During Stations of the Cross, a wooden cross traveled around the perimeter of the basilica’s interior, being held at each station by a different group of young adults or members of Catholic groups or religious orders.

In his homily at the closing Mass, Cardinal Wuerl reflected on the message of Pope Francis, which he had brought to the same basilica last year, and that the pontiff brought to Kraków for World Youth Day. In September 2015, Pope Francis celebrated a canonization Mass for St. Junípero Serra outside the basilica.

“What the Holy Father proclaimed throughout his time here and what he will undoubtedly be announcing again in Kraków, is that we are supposed to show God’s love and mercy to everyone,” said Cardinal Wuerl. “This is not a new teaching, but it rings fresh all over again as people hear it and are drawn to it.” 

Cardinal Wuerl encouraged young adults to “never underestimate the power of your witness,” even in the middle of a culture that “often says there is no place for God, (or) for the Gospel message of Jesus.”

Quoting St. John Paul II’s homily at the closing Mass for the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, Cardinal Wuerl told the young adults that they should not only “never be ashamed of your faith,” but should “always be proud of your faith.”

“Let us simply renew our own conviction that we are disciples of Jesus, that his words are the words of everlasting life, and that we are prepared to go out, to encounter, to accompany, to share, so that we can always demonstrate in word and in deed, what we say and how we act, that we are Jesus’ followers,” the cardinal concluded.

At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl reminded everyone to be grateful for the ability to freely profess their faith, when so many around the world, like Christians in Iraq and Syria and other parts of the Middle East, face persecution for their faith. He urged them to pray and speak out in solidarity for those suffering Christians.

“Let us never forget around the world there are our brothers and sisters who pay an extremely high price, even with their lives, for daring to make the sign of the cross,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

After the Mass, singer Marie Miller held an outdoor concert to conclude Kraków in the Capital. She sang for Pope Francis at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Some pilgrims, who had planned to camp outside overnight, were welcomed into the Dominican House of Studies to spend the night, due to the inclement weather.

As they sat down to enjoy Marie Miller’s music, Marc Cordero, David Randazzo and Natalie Vanni, parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Vienna, reflected on their experience from the day.

“My favorite part was seeing everyone here for the same reason,” Vanni said. “Seeing all this growth in faith in a couple hours was really cool.” Her biggest takeaway from the day, Vanni said, was that “faith is everywhere.”