KRAKOW — Though World Youth Day is known for its impact on young people, adult Catholics in attendance at this year’s event, held in Krakow, Poland, July 26–31, discovered an equally powerful experience as they were called upon to serve as witnesses of the faith.
Among the pilgrims from the Diocese of Providence, clergy, chaperones and young adults spoke of unique opportunities to embrace their call to ministry and often found themselves serving as models of their vocations as they guided a new generation of Catholics through the pilgrimage experience. In some cases, the roles reversed, and the faith witnesses of the young people they accompanied proved inspirational.
“At a time when we think the Church is dying and young people don’t really care about their faith anymore, seeing how pious they are, seeing how they understand what’s going on — they are here to have or want to have a relationship with Jesus,” observed Deacon Jean Joseph Brice, a major seminarian for the Diocese of Providence.
Deacon Brice was one of several members of the clergy who traveled alongside high school- and college-aged diocesan youth to World Youth Day 2016. He considers ministering to the young people of the diocese an important part of his vocational call.
“I love youth. I think about them a lot. It dominates my studies and what I do,” he said. “My generation of priests has to be the one who forms them, who gets them on fire for their faith so they can live the Church of the 21st century.”
Also accompanying the pilgrimage was fellow major seminarian Deacon Brian Morris, who will be ordained alongside Deacon Brice next June. According to Deacon Morris, one of the highlights of the pilgrimage were the conversations he had with youth, many of whom were curious about the calling to priesthood and the religious life.
“This is interesting because a lot of them ask questions, things about what it means to be a seminarian,” he said. “I could see one of them talking to [Deacon] Joe Brice earlier and I could tell by the way Deacon Joe’s face was lighting up they were talking about faith and what it means to be faithful.”
Deacon Morris, who answered the call to priesthood later in life after graduating college and beginning a career, said he finds opportunities like World Youth Day important for showing young people they are not alone in their faith.
“I never had any of this, but I wish I had,” he said. “It was really hard for me to be faithful in college, then when I got to the working world it was the same thing. I think it helps to see that there are other young people in the country and around the world who practice their faith and are faithful.”
Other clergy who accompanied the diocesan pilgrims included Father Scott Carpentier, assistant pastor at St. Augustine Parish, Providence; Father Ryan Simas, assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville; Father Przemyslaw Shemek Lepak, pastor at Saints Theresa and Christopher Parishes, Tiverton; and Deacon Dr. Timothy Flanigan, deacon assistant at Saints Theresa and Christopher Parishes.
The pilgrimage was particularly special for Father Shemek, a native of Poland, who had the opportunity to introduce the diocesan pilgrims to many of the famous religious sites of his home country as they journeyed toward Krakow, a familiar city.
“I traveled to Krakow many times but have never seen the city so turned upside down and inside out to welcome the Holy Father and all the visitors for World Youth Day,” he said. “It was a privileged experience, a real blessing for me to be able to introduce our group to so many beautiful shrines during our pilgrimage to World Youth Day.”
Father Shemek and other diocesan priests also had the rare opportunity to concelebrate Sunday morning Mass with Pope Francis at the Campus Misericordiae, or “Field of Mercy,” attended by 1.5 million Catholics.
“It was my first time I concelebrated the Eucharist with Pope Francis, an experience I will never forget,” said Father Shemek. “Everything was beautiful, the music was magnificent, his homily was humble and gracious. There were 7,000 priests present and I was so proud being one of them.”
For lay individuals as well as clergy, the pilgrimage presented an opportunity to live out lay vocations as an example for youth while also renewing their own faith and commitment to ministry. Melissa Roberts, a youth minister at St. Philip Parish, said that World Youth Day was beneficial for her as well as for the young people she accompanied.
“I’ve just been able to be here, which is nice for me,” she said. “I don’t often get a chance to step back and do that. To step back and be refreshed and renewed.”
Peter Calestino, a parishioner at St. Pius V Parish, Providence, and member of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, said the highlight of the pilgrimage for him was visiting the relics of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Krakow. The body of Blessed Pier Giorgio, also a Lay Dominican, was moved to Krakow from its resting place in Turin, Italy, for the duration of World Youth Day.
“As a third order Dominican, I took Blessed Pier as my name,” said Calestino. “To be in his presence was amazing.”
For Ryan Tremblay, a Christian recording artist and parishioner at St. Lucy Church, Middletown, who traveled to World Youth Day separately from the diocesan group, the event provided an opportunity to share his talent as well as his ministry. Tremblay was invited to participate in a series of concerts for pilgrims and performed before international audiences at two venues in Krakow and nearby Wadowice.
“If you are a Christian, you know that your music or art connects to a large population of people,” he said. “To leave Providence and have those people meet you, it just felt like a huge celebration.”
For adult Catholics as well as youth, the renewal of faith that occurred during World Youth Day did not end with the event. As the pilgrimage drew to a close and many of the diocesan young people spoke of seeking out new ways to live their Catholic faith, seminarian Brendan Rowley pointed out that the role of a mentor was ongoing and that Church leadership had a responsibility to continue to provide opportunities for young people to grow in their faith after their return.
“I think now the task for our Church after an event like this is to give the young people a way to continue nurturing that faith, growing in that faith, continuing to encounter in that mercy,” he said. “Because there’s always a danger of, ‘it’s over and now that’s it.’”
The World Youth Day series will conclude in the next edition of Rhode Island Catholic.