Having never gone to World Youth Day before and being a newly ordained Catholic priest (May 20, 2016), I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this World Youth Day pilgrimage in Kraków, Poland. I wasn’t entirely sure what my role would be, what my purpose would be, on this pilgrimage. I have been ordained a priest for about two months, so I knew that I would be going on this pilgrimage as a priest, but even that didn’t reveal to me what my deeper purpose was going to be. Plus, with my life being hectic with the move to my new parish at St. Stephens, which occurred literally a week and a half before we left for Europe, my life was understandably upside down. I had almost no time to mentally prepare for this trip. Instead, I packed light and hit the road to join up with the rest of the group from Wyoming as we prepared to leave the United States of America with little to no expectations of what was to come. I think this complete unpreparedness was, in itself, a grace given to me by the Lord. Without any expectation of what was to come, the Lord moved me in ways I didn’t see coming and have been tremendously blessed by, and my not have noticed had I been actively expecting something else.
Our pilgrimage consisted of a “pre-trip” to Lithuania for about a week where we followed the footsteps of St. Faustina and St. John Paul II. St. Faustina lived a part of her life in Lithuania and the original painted image of Divine Mercy is displayed in Vilnius, Lithuania, which we got to see and we also got to celebrate Mass there in that chapel with a group of other pilgrims from Italy and Lithuania. The second part of our pilgrimage consisted of World Youth Day proper, a time with youth from all over the world converging in Kraków to hang out for a number of days with the Pope to pray and encounter our Lord, Jesus Christ. To be honest, I was not a fan of the huge crowds, but to see the vibrant energy of the youth from all over the world was incredible; we were all friends and fellow Catholics no matter what language we spoke. The last couple days of our pilgrimage we went to Wadowice (the birth place of St. John Paul II) and we also went to Auschwitz before flying back to America.
Amidst the overaching pilgrimage of the entire group, each individual person trekked on their own interior pilgrimage, myself included! My pilgrimage started with an unexpected dose of humility: I was already late. I walked into the gym of St. Mary’s elementary school in Cheyenne 45 minutes late because of my drive across Wyoming from my parish. I tried to nonchalantly walk into the gym where all the youth had gathered for the evening prior to departure and I quickly joined a circle of youth who were already playing ice breakers (definitely one of the more awkward, yet still important aspects of youth retreats/trips). The first thing that surprised me was how warm and welcoming the youth were to me. Some knew me since they were youth from my home parish (St. Matthew’s parish in Gillette), but others met me for the first time that evening. I was the “new priest” and was immediately welcomed as part of the group, which impressed me. The next day, after celebrating Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, we loaded up two charter buses to drive to Denver International Airport. I was assigned to Bus #2 and, as I got on board, I expected to find an empty seat and just chill for the ride. Instead, once I boarded, I found a cheering invitation from the youth from Holy Trinity parish in Cheyenne to sit in the back of the bus with them. I was surprised and I headed back to sit with them. From that moment on and throughout the entire pilgrimage, the Holy Trinity youth adopted me and I also adopted them. I was struck by the fact that they called me just “Father”, not “Father Andrew” or “Andrew” (as my friends in seminary would). This was the Lord subtly pointing out to me His purpose for me on this trip, which I was oblivious to at this point.
We arrived in Lithuania and had some amazing pilgrimage experiences there, but what still continued to strike me was not the place where we were (even though it was incredibly Catholic), or the things that I was seeing (which were incredibly beautiful), but the relationships I was forming with the youth of Wyoming. After about a week, the realization struck me like lightning: the Lord was showing me that I am truly a father. I knew that I was a priest (that reality I had understood concretely for two months), but what I didn’t quite realize was that I am also a father, a spiritual father, and I hadn’t yet really had an experience of that reality in my priestly life. The fact that the youth were calling me father and loved the fact that I loved to hang out with them affirmed the reality of spiritual fatherhood in me. I felt dumbstruck, as if I was stupid for not noticing it before! One of the youth even told me that I was his new favorite priest, which blew me away. I began to realize that am more than just a catholic priest, I am a spiritual father, which is precisely why all priests are called “Father”! We reveal God the Father to those we encounter in our own charisma of spiritual fatherhood. This profound reality of spiritual fatherhood within me was re-affirmed many times in Poland. I taught table etiquette (something I learned in seminary) to the youth at my table at a fancier dinner in Warsaw and they loved learning it from me. During supper they also asked me the all-important question, which revealed their interest in me: “Father, why did you decide to become a priest?” I was blessed to be able to share my story with them that night. The next day I got to show my adopted youth the original icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and was pleased to be the one to show it to them, as their spiritual father. Later, once World Youth Day was in full swing, more fatherhood experienced came my way. One such experience came as we anxiously awaited for the official Papal Welcome of Pope Francis and our whole group was crowded into a field at Blonia Park where Pope Francis was to arrive. Our youth pushed against the fence to be as close to Pope Francis as they could when he drove by in his popemobile and I (along with some of the other chaperones and priests) hung back to guard the many backpacks of our youth as they lay on the ground from the throngs of other people also trying to push forward to see the Pope. I remember relishing the fact that I felt like a father, I was letting my kids go have this experience of seeing the Pope and I held back to guard their backpacks, just like a father would do for his kids.
My spiritual fatherhood was also affirmed very directly during the Saturday vigil at the vast park called Campus Misericordiae. This part of World Youth Day is the most grueling part. All the pilgrims from around the world hiked out to Campus Misericordiae where the closing Mass was held, and camped out overnight. Roughly 1.6 million people camped out there that night and everyone was crammed into these fields like sardines. It felt absolutely crazy because of the amount of people that were present that evening. In the midst of 1.6 million people I really felt protective of my kids and assumed the role of father, even to the point of feeling like I was guarding them as they slept (I went to bed at 1:30am and got up at 5am and watched over them). During the vigil, because of the amount of people and the huge lines, the majority of the youth from Wyoming did not get their meal packets (a bag full of snacks and drinks that would provide 3 meals for the vigil experience). Around 8pm that evening I gathered some of the youth and another chaperone and we decided to venture out to get food for our kids. We gathered almost 30 meal vouchers and headed out. The hike out to the food was roughly 2 miles and even at that time, there were tons of people getting food as well. As we went out to get food for our pilgrims, the temptation to be frustrated by the whole situation was huge, so I talked to the youth with me and pointed out the fact that in the midst of all the craziness around us that could cause anger and frustration, we were doing the Lord’s work. We were concretely doing a corporal work of mercy: we were feeding the hungry (of Wyoming). Instead of being a chore to head out to get the food, we turned it into something enjoyable and something where we could clearly see God in the midst of absolute craziness. As a father, I was able to show my kids this awesome reality and have great and fun conversations with them along the way.
As the whole pilgrimage came to a close, my role of father was continuously affirmed. I had deep conversations with many of the youth, and some of them opened their hearts to me by sharing what was going on in their lives that they were struggling with. I remember clearly feeling completely undeserving of this kind of gift, and I felt immensely privileged that some of these youth felt that they wanted to share their hearts with me. I asked myself: “Who am I to be a father to them?” And yet that is what God was revealing to me, that I am that father to them. Before this trip, I expected to interact with the youth in a fun, superficial sort of way, and was not expecting this kind of trip to be a place to actually encounter the hearts of the youth and be a father to them and a friend, and yet that is precisely what happened.
God is not to be outdone in generosity. As much as the youth grew from the experience of World Youth Day, I did as well. I received and learned to live out of my identity as Spiritual Father.