Pope Francis sets out for Poland tomorrow, July 27, on his 15th foreign journey under extraordinarily tight security because of the recent terrorist attacks and blind violence in Europe, including an attack on a church and the killing of a priest in France today.
His journey will take him not only to Krakow for World Youth Day—where exceptional security measures are being provided by 20,000 Polish police and military personnel—but also to the famous shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa and the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Krakow. He will also visit the infamous death camp of Auschwitz—a symbol of violence and great evil in the 20th century.
While his main purpose in coming to Krakow is to participate in World Youth Day, he made clear in a video message on the eve of his arrival that he is also coming to meet the Polish nation for the first time and is doing so in "grateful and devoted memory of St. John Paul II, who was the initiator of the W.Y.D., and the guide of the Polish people in their recent historical journey towards freedom."
Francis will take the plane from Rome at 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon and will arrive at St. John Paul II international airport in Krakow two hours later. He will be accompanied by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, other Roman Curia officials, including Federico Lombardi, S.J.—on his last foreign journey as the pope’s spokesman—and Vatican security personnel. Seventy-five reporters, TV cameramen and photographers from many countries are also traveling with him, including America’s Vatican correspondent.
This is the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Francis has ensured a particularly close link between it and W.Y.D. by choosing as the theme for this gathering the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” One can expect mercy to be the leitmotif of the nine talks and homilies he will deliver on his four-and-a-half-day visit (July 27-31).
Francis is participating in W.Y.D. as pope for the second time. His first mega-encounter with young people took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013, an event that three to four million people attended.
He is filled with joy at the prospect of this new encounter with young people from 187 countries, ages 14 to 35, as he confided in his video message: "I am very anxious to meet you and to offer to the world a new sign of harmony, a mosaic of different faces, from many races, languages, peoples and cultures, but all united in the name of Jesus, who is the face of mercy."
It is his first visit to Poland, a country of some 37 million people and member of the European Union, which embraced the Christian faith almost 1,000 years ago and where still today, even after 42 years of communism (1947-89), 98 percent of the population professes to be Catholic.
Addressing “the sons and daughters of Poland” in his video message, he told them that he considered it “a great gift of the Lord” to visit them. “You are a nation that throughout its history has experienced so many trials, some particularly difficult, and has persevered through the power of faith, upheld by the maternal hands of the Virgin Mary,” he told them.
For the duration of his visit, Francis will be based in Krakow, the country’s second largest city and its former capital (1038-1596), which escaped being bombed in World War II. This amazingly beautiful city, with a population of 760,000 people, is today the cultural capital of the country and a renowned academic center with 23 universities including one of Europe’s oldest—the Jagiellonian university (founded in 1364), which counts among its alumni and professors such notable people as Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as private secretary to St. John Paul II for almost 40 years and celebrated the opening Mass for W.Y.D. on July 26, will act as host to Francis for his entire visit. The Jesuit pope will stay in the archbishop’s residence where Karol Wojytla lived for many years before becoming pope and to which he returned seven times during his pontificate.
Soon after his arrival, Francis will travel to the Wavel Royal Castle, which was the seat of Polish kings until the end of the 16th century, 37 of whom were crowned in the Wawel Cathedral. It is also the resting place of rulers as well as national heroes and Polish poets and writers. As a newly ordained priest, Karol Wojytla celebrated his first Mass in the crypt of this national monument.
At the Wavel, Francis will deliver his first speech to the Polish authorities, representatives of civil society and the diplomatic corps and is expected to address such hot-button issues as immigration, which are at the heart of heated political debate in the country. Francis has appealed to E.U. countries to welcome refugees and migrants, but Poland’s main political forces, including the governing party, are not particularly receptive, indeed hostile to this.
From the castle, Francis will go to the nearby cathedral to meet the Polish bishops. This, too, will be a very important event as a significant number of these 150 prelates (and their priests) reportedly do not share his stance on poverty and also have problems with his teaching on marriage and the family as expressed in “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”). Francis abandoned his original idea of delivering a formal talk—such as he did in Washington, D.C., when he met the U.S. bishops—instead opting for a private dialogue with them, with a question-and-answer format. It remains to be seen how much of that private session will become public knowledge.
The next day, July 28, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass with the Polish bishops at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, on the occasion of the 1050th anniversary of the country’s baptism. Later that afternoon, he will have his first encounter with the 350,000 young people from 187 countries (including over 30,000 from the United States) who have registered for this event. Many have come with their bishops, and the organizers say some 70 cardinals and 800 bishops will participate in the W.Y.D. events, and many will give catechesis and engage in question-and-answer sessions with the young during this international festival of sharing, prayer, music, song and dance.
On Friday morning, July 29, like his two predecessors, Francis will travel to Auschwitz (40 miles from Krakow) and, while there, will pray in the cell where the martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe was condemned to death and subsequently died of starvation. He will also visit the Birkenau camp. Significantly, however, he has insisted on doing all this in silence, without any speech or public prayer. He believes this is a place where one must remain silent and weep.
That same afternoon, Francis will visit a pediatric hospital and afterwards participate in the Way of the Cross, enacted by the young people, a procession that this year focuses on the works of mercy.
On Saturday morning, July 30, he will visit the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy at Lagienwniki in Krakow, and pray in the chapel of St. Faustina Kowalska, whose private revelations led to the spread of this devotion and inspired John Paul II to write his encyclical on the subject. Afterwards, he will drive to the new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II to celebrate Mass for Polish priests, women and men religious and seminarians.
After that, Francis will have lunch with 12 young people from the different continents, and in the evening, he will travel to (the field of mercy) to participate in the Youth Vigil, which is one of the high points of W.Y.D. He is likely to speak spontaneously here.
On Sunday morning, July 31, Pope Francis will celebrate the closing Mass of this W.Y.D. It is estimated that two million people, putting aside the fear of terrorism and violence, will attend that liturgy. That same evening, before returning to Rome, he will thank the 20,000-plus volunteers who have made this festive event possible.