By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
Catholicism expressed in public impressed local people who went to World Youth Day in Poland.
“The interesting thing about Poland is, everyone is Catholic,” observed Adam Cormier, principal of St. Mary’s Schools in Worcester, who went on the July 20-Aug. 5 pilgrimage sponsored by the schools and their parish, Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Their pastor, Father Richard Polek, led the 43-person pilgrimage to his home country, where he is remaining through Aug. 24.
“People from my group were so happy,” Father Polek told The Catholic Free Press by telephone this week. “In this group you were not afraid to show that you believe.”
He said there were many Catholics in Poland, unlike in the United States, where Catholics are sometimes afraid to share their faith because of their smaller numbers and the many different religions.
“There were just crosses or religious statues or monuments everywhere,” said Kuba Gawedzki, who graduated from St. Mary High School last spring. He said it was “extremely admirable” that everyone was proud of their faith, and strange but wonderful to see so many churches. When he’s gone to Poland to visit relatives, he’s always gone to the countryside, he said. He marveled at the beautiful churches he saw in Krakow on this trip.
“This is my first time going to Poland, being in my home country,” said Veronica Prytko, who’s going into her senior year at St.Mary’s. She said she felt proud to be Polish, because of the people’s devotion to their faith.
Many people warned her of pick-pockets in Europe, she said.
“I never once felt in danger,” she said. “I was surrounded by so many Catholic people.… I got 1,000 high fives. Everyone was so happy.… I felt like God was truly present to me.… I felt I was glowing from the inside.”
At World Youth Day it was momentous to see so many young Catholics so excited about their faith, and they didn’t mind being inconvenienced by weather, waiting and walking long distances, Mr. Cormier said.
Their parish pilgrimage, called “In the Footsteps of John Paul II,” included more than World Youth Day events.
“John Paul II is everywhere,” Mr. Cormier said. “He’s a larger-than-life figure, very, very much adored.… We got to see the cassock he was shot in. It was almost surreal. All these things that you see and hear become real.”
Asked what that did for him, Mr. Cormier spoke of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
“These people really know what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s real faith there. Churches are crowded,” even with young people. He said he almost wanted to stay there.
“The hotel had crucifixes in every room,” he said. “There is no separation of Church and state from what we could see. There is no hiding of Catholicism.”
Nuns in habits and priests in cassocks and collars were walking on the streets. He said they teach in the state schools, so when Polish families come to the United States they don’t expect to pay for a Catholic education.
“Auschwitz was a big thing,” Mr. Cormier said of their stop at a former Nazi extermination camp. “I don’t know how to put it in words.… You could feel the horror.… You could feel the death.”
Another moving experience was attending Father Polek’s Mass in the parish where Pope John Paul II grew up. Mr. Cormier said he “teared up” numerous times.
And seeing the original icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa gives more meaning to the name of his parish, he said.
He got his first real-life look at a pope too, he said; he was among people right in front of Pope Francis’ motorcade.
“You can’t even put it to words,” he said. “It almost still feels like a dream.”
In Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko, Mr. Cormier said he found an example to use in his Church history classes. He called the Polish martyr a “modern day Thomas-a-Becket or Oscar Romero” and praised the example of the Polish people in general.
Julie Richer, 21, of St. Patrick Parish in Whitinsville, talked about how to keep alive the spirit of her pilgrimage to Poland and World Youth Day. She went with her pastor, Father Tomasz J. Borkowski, also a native of Poland, and others from the parish who were part of a Worcester diocesan group. She said the pilgrimage was physically and spiritually challenging.
“A lot of people there challenged us to grow in our faith, which can be daunting, but also exciting,” she said.
Pilgrims were told they were on a spiritual high there, and needed to find a way to keep the excitement about the faith, even if it doesn’t feel as exciting as it did there, she said.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed that I had the opportunity to do this,” she said. It was exciting to see so many Catholic youth there, and that brought her hope that Catholicism is still relevant in the world today.