By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
Pope Francis left his mark on local World Youth Day participants in this Year of Mercy. So did other followers of Christ, both living and canonized.
Robin LeBlanc, a 21-year-old from Our Lady Immaculate Parish in Athol, said this was her first time to see the homes of St. John Paul II and St. Faustina Kowalska, who brought Jesus’ message and image of Divine Mercy to the world.
Seeing Pope Francis and hearing his words impressed Miss LeBlanc too. “It was just amazing – to see him myself and to experience what he was saying to me and to the other young people there,” she said.The Pope told them that Jesus is always merciful and people should be merciful too “and that was really touching to me.”
Miss LeBlanc was honored to be chosen to sit at the table with Cardinal Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, when he ate dinner with the group, said Sharon Maher, former religious education coordinator at Our Lady Immaculate and a chaperone for the group. She was among 21 members of the Worcester Diocese who went to World Youth Day events in Poland last week with more than 300 from the Boston Archdiocese. They also visited significant sites in Poland.
“I thought it was phenomenal!” said Mrs. Maher, 65. “I thought the kids were wonderful! … They were so respectful and so spirited.”
She expressed appreciation for Pope Francis’ call to build bridges not walls.
She commended the Knights of Columbus for renting an arena they called Mercy Centre for Masses, catechesis and music for English-speaking pilgrims.
In the Jasna Gora Monastery, at Mass at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, also known as Our Lady of Czestochowa, “you could just feel the Spirit,” Mrs. Maher said. And seeing the original image of Jesus as King of Divine Mercy that St. Faustina had directed to be painted “was just beautiful,” she said.
“There probably couldn’t be a better place to have World Youth Day, because it’s John Paul II’s homeland, and the homeland of Divine Mercy and it’s the Year of Mercy,” said Elizabeth Cotrupi, director of the Worcester Diocese’s youth ministry office, New Evangelization Worcester for Youth & Young Adults.
“And the saints – Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein … great saints of the 20th century. And what Poland represents, under all that oppression of communism, atheism, and yet it didn’t squelch the faith of the Polish people. It’s not completely dissimilar to what we experience as Catholics in this country – not (having) as much religious freedom as we once had.”
But that was put in to perspective by other people’s experiences, she said. A bishop and a young adult from Iraq talked about how hard it is to be faithful there, Mrs. Cotrupi recalled.
“We really take our faith for granted in this country,” she said. And in Poland the Americans were in a country where Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko and other Christians were martyred for their faith, she said, expressing gratitude for their witness.
Father Tomasz J. Borkowski, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Whitinsville, who brought a group from his parish, told them a little of what it was like under communism, Mrs. Cotrupi said. He is from Poland and also expressed pride in his homeland. (His group hadn’t returned home by press time.)
Mrs. Cotrupi also said it was inspiring to hear Pope Francis; “his speeches were so great” – for young people and adults.
“We were not brought into this world to sit on the couch and be distracted by television,” she said, paraphrasing one of the pope’s messages. She said he challenged the youth, asking them such questions as, “Are you going to be couch potatoes?” He waited for their answers “and then they’d all start screaming” their response.
There was another type of challenge too.
“It was truly a pilgrimage; there was no vacation,” Mrs. Cotrupi said, explaining that what pilgrims thought was an eight-mile hike turned out to be 11 miles. Other days they walked about seven miles a day.
They also went to “one astounding place after another,” and “got to venerate all sorts of relics,” she said. Also impressive were religious sisters, mostly beautiful young women in traditional habits, she said. Women from St. Faustina’s congregation “just radiated God’s joy,” she said.
“They really struck me,” she said. “I want what they have. They are so in love with the Lord.”