If I had to briefly describe the eleven days I spent in Poland for World Youth Day, I would simply say this: a pilgrimage is a whole lifetime in just a few days.
In just eleven days, or however long a pilgrimage might be, you go through the whole life of the soul, and it concludes with the triumphant homecoming and entry into heaven (or at least Colorado sure felt like heaven after eleven days of humidity). Now, the result of living through a whole life is that a lot of life lessons are picked up, even if the ‘whole life’ is just eleven days long. So here are five things I learned about life after living through a whole life in eleven days.
1) God’s plans are always better
Wednesday evening was starting to look like every day preceding it- that is to say, our schedule was getting messed up and we were missing something that we really didn’t want to miss. We were sitting outside of Tauron, the arena for all English speakers, along with 2,000 other people who were vainly hoping to get a seat with the 18,000 people already inside while catching the occasional sound of Matt Maher’s concert. Never mind that we had just gotten back from seeing Our Lady of Czestochowa- our plans were getting messed up, and nothing could make it better. In fact, it only got worse, because then security came around and kicked us all out because there was absolutely no chance of getting inside. So we sadly went back to downtown Krakow, since rumor had it that Pope Francis had not yet given his window speech and we still had a chance to see him on his first night in.
As luck would have it, we got there too late and therefore couldn’t get good spots to see him. Now, I can’t speak for my whole group, but thus far I wasn’t actually too disappointed. Yes, I really wanted to see Matt Maher. Yes, I wanted to see the Pope even more. But I had set out with the mentality that God would send us wherever He wanted us to be, and I held to that even when everything got messed up. And this is what happened as a result:
After everyone began to disperse, my group decided we were in need of Polish ice cream (which makes American ice cream taste like dirt. Seriously.). Now, I had already experienced Polish ice cream every day of the trip thus far, and I wanted to go back to this one little place that I thought nothing else could compare to. But my vote was overridden, and we ended up going to an ice cream place right by the archbishop’s palace (where Pope Francis gave his window speech).
[At this point in the story, you have to understand that I want to enter the Dominican order in the near future, and so every time I saw a Dominican, I squealed and fan-girled and otherwise acted like a child on Christmas. For example: when there was a Dominican party at the Dominican basilica in Krakow, I almost died of Dominican-induced joy and had to be dragged back to our hostel in order to prevent me from joining them on the spot. On the other hand, I think of Dominicans like most people think of celebrities; that is to say, I can’t approach one because they’re too awesome for me.]
So back to my story. I didn’t get to see Matt Maher. I didn’t get to see Pope Francis. I didn’t get to go to my favorite ice cream place. But I was still convinced that God had everything under control. So I went into this new ice cream place, at the entrance of which stood a whole group of Dominican sisters. But of course I’m too shy to say anything, even though they were obviously speaking English, so I just slipped inside with a ridiculous grin plastered on my face. Then I discovered that this new ice cream place had Nutella ice cream, and I was momentarily distracted by this wonderful piece of information. But when I walked back out with my Nutella ice cream (absolutely nothing in the world can top it), one of my friends was talking to the Dominican sisters. One of my friends who knew that I wanted to enter the Dominican order. So what does she do? “Hey Mary, come over here!”
So here I am in Poland, 50 feet away from the building where Pope Francis is inside, eating Nutella ice cream, and to top it all off, I find myself talking to Dominican nuns… of the same community that I want to enter.
I was genuinely convinced that I was going to pull a Blessed Imelda.
God’s plans are always better than ours. I missed seeing Matt Maher, I missed seeing Pope Francis, I didn’t get to go back to the other ice cream place… and it ended up being the best night of my whole life, because God had a different plan. This doesn’t just go for pilgrimages. It goes for our whole life, although it won’t always be as obvious as that example.
2) Take advantage of grace
Everywhere we went, there was a Door of Mercy. I’m pretty sure I passed through at least one a day- which means at least one plenary indulgence a day, right? Wrong- because I hadn’t been to Confession within the last eight days, thus leaving one of the requirements unfulfilled. This was bothering me. I didn’t need to go to Confession. After all, I go regularly and I was pretty sure I was clear of any mortal sin; but the priest who came with us insisted that we go sometime during the pilgrimage, and besides that, a plenary indulgence would be nice. And when I went to the Divine Mercy Shrine and saw the rows of outdoor confessionals, this feeling grew even stronger. I was still undecided, though, until we met a nun from the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy- the congregation that St. Faustina belonged to.
Listening to this nun was like listening to St. Faustina. Not only did she look like her (same habit, after all), but everything she said reminded me of the Saint’s words in her diary. As I was listening, though, I was still wondering about Confession. And then, she pulled out a stack of slips of paper -each with a different clip from St. Faustina’s diary- and let each of us pick one at random. I took one, thinking of St. Augustine’s garden moment. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. In short, the clip I got was Jesus literally saying, “Come to Confession.” So I’m standing there, smiling but not at all surprised, and then I started wondering- should I go to the priest who came with us, or should I go find a priest I don’t know? And as I thought this, the nun started telling us a story about another time she gave people the slips of paper, and afterwards a woman came up to her and said she had wanted to go to Confession but didn’t want to go to a priest she knew. And what did the slip say? “It doesn’t matter who the priest is.” So as you can imagine, I went to Confession to the first available priest, regardless of whether I knew him or not, and got my plenary indulgence.
Moral of the story: take advantage of grace. When God gives you the opportunity for a plenary indulgence, take it as a gift. When God sends you the clearest possible messages, don’t ignore them. We lose graces so often because we ignore them or don’t want to fulfill the obligations that they entail. Be faithful to grace. You can’t get to heaven without it.
3) Life involves waiting
When you think of World Youth Day, what do you think of? The Pope? Three million teenagers screaming their heads off? Loud music and dancing and Frenchmen riding on top of cars through the main square of Krakow while waving their flag? All of those would be correct, but there’s a big aspect of World Youth Day that doesn’t get advertised as one of the benefits: waiting. So. Much. Waiting. Waiting for food. Waiting for the bathroom. Waiting for ice cream. Waiting to board the plane. Waiting to get inside the arena. Waiting in the sun. Waiting in the rain. Waiting while pressed up against people who probably haven’t showered all week. Waiting for three hours when a communication error occurs with your bus driver, who doesn’t speak English. Waiting for the food bags during the vigil because there were so many people that they ran out.
Waiting is part of life as much as it’s part of a pilgrimage- waiting for the answer to a prayer. Waiting for a sign. Waiting for a call to a vocation. And in general, no one likes to wait. To us, it feels like a waste of time that could have been used for just about anything else. But here’s the thing- God doesn’t work on human time. He works on His time- eternity. And though it might seem endlessly slow to us, He always gets done what He wants to. Think about the Israelites, who had to wait forty years in the desert. It wasn’t a meaningless time- God used the wait time to purify them, so that only the ones who hadn’t sinned against Him would reach the promised land. The same goes for us- waiting purifies us. Waiting builds virtue. It isn’t fun- in ten years from now when I’m still telling stories about World Youth Day, the wait time is not going to be one of them. But if God is making you wait for something, you’re in good company- think about how many souls He is making wait in Purgatory, but who are all destined for heaven.
4) Life is not a one-man band
Buses are not the most comfortable thing in the world to sleep on, but when we’re averaging four hours of sleep every night, the bus is the place to make up for it. Of course, you only want to go to sleep on the bus if everyone is asleep on the bus. Otherwise, you risk a mustache drawn on you in Sharpie, or a rude awakening by a camera flash and your priceless reaction caught forever on camera. But when everyone is asleep, buses are not comfortable, because sleeping upright is not comfortable.
The solution? Sleep on each other’s shoulders. I used my brother’s shoulder a couple times, and when I woke up in Berlin on Tuesday morning after an all night ride, my friend was sleeping on mine. This was not the first time we teamed up for the mutual benefit of both. There was a lot of teamwork involved in this pilgrimage- sharing food, sharing blankets, sharing water, sharing rain ponchos, sharing soap when people forgot theirs, holding the door shut when the lock on the bathroom is broken… etc. Without this help, I’m pretty sure none of us would have survived.
Life is not a one-man band. There’s a reason why our natural vocation is marriage- to be with another person. There’s a reason why people who are called to religious life live in a community, even though they remain single. There’s a reason why Jesus sent His followers out in pairs. There’s a reason why the Church has three parts which are in communion with one another. Simply put, it’s because we aren’t supposed to tackle life alone. See, our job is not just to get to heaven. Our job is to get to heaven, and to bring as many people with us as possible. If we were all out for ourselves, how much fun would that be? There would be no love, because love requires a communion of persons- there would be no love within the Trinity if the Trinity was just a One-ity.
Being on a pilgrimage quickly teaches you that a One-ity is impossible (aside from the fact that it’s not even a real word). Life is the same. We need each other- we need someone to drag us towards heaven when we’re tired, and we need to do the same for other people. And sometimes, we need someone’s shoulder to sleep on when we’re tired of having our head jostled around.
5) God chooses our homecoming date
I woke up at 3am on Monday morning due to the fact that my two roommates -who were from a different group- were packing up and leaving. In fact, it seemed like everyone was leaving on Sunday night or Monday morning except for my group. We still had a whole other day ahead of us -a private retreat at the Franciscan monastery in Kalwaria, so we could review the pilgrimage and talk about Pope Francis’ message of mercy. It was a nice day -there was more Nutella ice cream, more Polish tomato soup, more pretty churches, and more Franciscans- but I really did want to go home. Seeing everyone else leave suddenly made me realize how ready I was to follow them. If it had been up to me, I would have left on Monday. But our flight was on Tuesday. We still had another day.
This, maybe, is something we don’t think about often- God chooses our homecoming date. He chooses our ‘flight’. It isn’t up to us to choose when we finish the pilgrimage and come home- not just home to Colorado, but home to heaven. The only thing that is up to us is whether we will see the pilgrimage through. See, there were two options. I could have tuned everything out and thought about how much I just wanted to leave, or I could have taken as much grace from that last day as possible, as much as I didn’t want to be there. The same goes for life. We can quit the pilgrimage and wait in boredom for the flight home -although, if that’s what you choose, I don’t think you’ll be ending up where you wanted to go- or you can see it through to the very end, even when everyone else has finished the race.