Pope Francis was given an ecstatic welcome by half a million young people from 187 countries when he arrived aboard an ecological tram at Krakow’s Blonia Park for the official welcome ceremony in his honor.
They danced and jumped for joy, they cheered and waved their national flags when the pope arrived in this enormous park, which has hosted many great events linked to the faith in recent decades. St. John Paul II celebrated Mass here six times, and Benedict XVI did so once. Today, it registered another milestone in history when Pope Francis was there for a World Youth Day festival, the park’s most international gathering yet.
After being warmly welcomed by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow and the long-time secretary of John Paul II, Francis sat on a chair in front of an image of Jesus the Divine Mercy and was treated to a magnificent spectacle of dance and song, performed by young people from every continent.
Hundreds of thousands of other young people, wearing blue, orange, red or white ponchos to shield themselves from the gentle rain, watched the colorful spectacle, too, and joined in the singing.
This evening’s festival of faith began with rousing music, dance and song, as representatives of the different continents came forward in front of Pope Francis waving their national flags. Five of them came forward carrying large portraits of “witnesses of mercy” from their respective continents: St. Vincent de Paul (Europe), Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Asia), St. Mary MacKillop (Australia and Oceania), St. Giuseppina Bakhita (Africa), St. Damian de Veuster of Molokai (North America) and Blessed Irma Dulce (South America).
The theme for this evening’s celebration was “Called to Holiness,” and young people from different continents presented this message with an animated illustration of young saints from the third to the 20th century.
This was followed by the reading of the Gospel account of Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary. Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for: Pope Francis’ first talk at this W.Y.D.
Just as he had done on the evening of his election as pope, today Francis began with a simple greeting that provoked thunderous applause: “Dear young friends, good evening! At last we are together! Thank you, for your warm welcome!”
They had come together, he said, “to celebrate the faith” in the hometown of Poland’s most famous son—St. John Paul II, who started the World Youth Days and “gave them such momentum.”
He drew great applause when he told them that “from his place in heaven” John Paul II “is with us and he sees all of you: so many young people from such a variety of nations, cultures and languages but with one aim, that of rejoicing that Jesus is living in our midst.”
He said this W.Y.D. offered them the opportunity “to renew our friendship with Jesus, by building friendships among yourselves” and “by sharing him with others!”
He recalled that as a bishop in Buenos Aires for many years he had come to understand that “nothing is more beautiful than seeing the enthusiasm, dedication, zeal and energy with which so many young people live their lives.”
Moreover, he said, when Jesus touches a young person’s heart “he or she becomes capable of truly great things.”
Francis confided that he finds it exciting to listen to them share their dreams, their questions and their “impatience with those who say that things cannot change.” Speaking of change, he twice posed the question: “Can things be changed in this world?” He asked for their answer, and they shouted loudly, “Yes [they can].”
He told these young people, and the millions of others like them who are participating in W.Y.D. by livefeeds in their home countries, that “today the church looks to you and wants to learn from you, to be reassured that the Father’s mercy has an ever-youthful face and constantly invites us to be part of his kingdom.”
Pope Francis, who showed no negative effect from his fall at Mass in Czestochowa this morning, devoted the rest of his inspiring talk to the theme of mercy, which is the central focus of W.Y.D. and of the Jubilee Year.
“Mercy always has a youthful face!” he stated, and went on to spell out in some detail what being merciful means in their day-to-day lives. He told them that “a merciful heart” is one that “is motivated to move beyond its comfort zone” and “can go out and meet others” and “embrace everyone.” It is a heart that “is able to be a place of refuge for those who are without a home or have lost their home” and “is able to build a home and a family for those forced to emigrate."
A merciful heart is one that “knows the meaning of tenderness and compassion,” he said; it is one that “can share its bread with the hungry and welcome refugees and migrants.”
Indeed, he said, to use the word “mercy” with young people is to speak of “opportunity, future, commitment, trust, openness, hospitality, compassion and dreams.”
They had come together here in Krakow from all corners of the earth, he said, “to help one another other, because we do not want to be robbed of the best of ourselves. We don’t want to be robbed of our energy, our joy, our dreams by fond illusions.”
He reminded them yet again, as he had done at the last W.Y.D. in Rio de Janeiro, that Jesus is the one who can give them “true passion for life” and inspire them “to give the very best of ourselves.” Indeed, Jesus is the one who “pushes us to keep our sights high and to dream of great things.”
He urged them in these days together in Krakow to ask Jesus to “launch us on the adventure of mercy! Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire. Launch us on the adventure of helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives.”
He encouraged them to ask Jesus to help them “to be attentive to our elders” and, in particular, “to listen attentively to those we do not understand, those of other cultures and peoples, even those we are afraid of because we consider them a threat.”
His young audience had interrupted his talk many times with enthusiastic applause, and when he finished, they raised a mighty cheer and broke into song and dance.