Some 350,000 young Catholics from 187 countries have traveled to Poland to join Pope Francis for World Youth Day, which is expected to attract more than 2 million people for the closing ceremonies this weekend.
The event is being held this week primarily in Krakow, the city where John Paul II spent most of his life before becoming pope. Cardinal Stanislaw Dzisiwz, who served as his secretary for almost 40 years and has attended every W.Y.D., will host Francis in the archbishop’s residence where John Paul II lived and to which he returned on seven of his nine visits to Poland as pope.
Even though Francis is now pope, Krakow, Warsaw and other W.Y.D. sites in Poland are dominated by images and memories of his predecessor. That is hardly surprising.
But the Argentine pope, who has never been in Poland, brings his own memories of his saintly predecessor: It was John Paul II who nominated him as auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires in 1992 and, six years later, as the archbishop of that megalopolis. Then, in 2001, the ailing pope gave him the red hat. Four years later, Francis was runner-up in the 2005 conclave to succeed him, and 12 years later was elected pope. On Wednesday morning, Pope Francis prayed at the tomb of John Paul II at St. Peter's Basilica before departing for Krakow.
While most of the 350,000 who have registered to participate in W.Y.D. come from Canada (3,750), France (35,000), Italy (90,000), Poland, Spain (50,000) and the United States (over 30,000), thousands more have come from across Latin America, the Middle East, Oceania and most countries in Africa.
Pope Francis, like John Paul II before him, believes the future of the church lies in Asia, where two-thirds of humanity lives. It is significant, therefore, that almost 5,000 young people have come from Asia for this mega-festival of Catholic youth—many more than attended the last W.Y.D. in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, where cost was a deterring factor.
They have come from most of the countries of Asia, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar and Pakistan. The largest contingent—some 1,500—has traveled from the Philippines with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
It is also noteworthy that more than 1,000 Chinese are present, including 500 from Hong Kong, 140 from Taiwan and hundreds more from 18 cities in mainland China. Sources suggest—though this remains to be confirmed—that it may have been easier for the Chinese to come to this gathering after many were prevented from from attending the Asian Youth Day in South Korea in 2014. Some credit progress in Sino-Vatican relations for a more positive attitude from the authorities in Beijing.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of young people, some 70 cardinals and 800 bishops from many countries (including roughly 40 from the United States) will participate in the event. The organizers claim that this is the largest gathering of prelates since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
St. John Paul II started W.Y.D. in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in 1984, attracting some 300,000 young people from many countries. Since then almost 20 million young people from all continents have participated in the event. There is evidence that W.Y.D. has deepened the faith of many who attended, has given rise to a large number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, as well as Christian marriages, and has inspired countless young people to dedicate themselves to work “for others.”
The second W.Y.D. was held in Buenos Aires in 1987, largely because Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, an Argentinian now on the path to beatification, was then president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity that oversees the event. At that time, the Jesuit priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio was teaching in the Collegio Maximo in Buenos Aires; he was not yet a bishop and played no significant role in that gathering.
From Argentina, the W.Y.D. moved to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1989. After the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II was able to preside over a youth festival in his fatherland in 1991, at the famous shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Two years later, the American city of Denver acted as host, and in 1995 the W.Y.D. went for to first time to Asia. In Manila, the capital of the Philippines, it attracted its largest crowd ever, some 5 million people. The next two international gatherings were held in Europe: Paris in 1997 and Rome in 2000. The 2002 W.Y.D.—John Paul II’s last—was held in Toronto. Pope Benedict XVI became pope three years later and participated in the next three festivals, at Cologne in 2005, Sydney in 2008 and Madrid in 2011. Before this year, the last W.Y.D. was in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and was led by the first-ever Latin American pope, who touched the hearts of three to four million young people by his humble approach, his concern for the poor and downtrodden and his inspiring actions and words.
This year’s festival is being held under the tightest security arrangements ever, coming as it does after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Bruxelles and the blind violence in Nice, Munich and Rouen. More than 20,000 police and military have been brought into the city of Krakow to protect the young participants and the Argentine pope.