If you’re wondering about my longer-than-usual absence from blogging, it’s because I’ve been at World Youth Day in Poland, and lacked both the WiFi and the time to provide a substantial update. Those negatives, however, were greatly outweighed by some great spiritual fruit, and it seems fitting to resume by blogging by sharing some of that fruit with you.
I should caveat at the outset that there really were too many graces to recount. I participated in some of the most beautiful and reverant liturgies I’ve ever seen (thanks to the Dominicans who provided polyphony!), had the chance to hold the relics of St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. Maximilian Kolbe, got pretty close to the Holy Father several times, and got to pray with a couple million Catholic pilgrims. I also had some truly incredible spiritual conversations that I would love to relate, but can’t because they’re too personal. So while I can’t go into any great depth about all of those graces, I thought I would share six of my favorite graces from the trip:
During my holy hour last Tuesday, I decided I should make a point of going to Confession soon (it had been a couple of weeks). Afterwards, we were wandering back in the rain, and decided to cut through the park. We noticed that the confessionals for WYD were already set up. A group of us were walking and talking when, as clear as day, a voice yells out, “Joe Heschmeyer!”
Turns out, Fr. Daniel Sedlacek, a newly-ordained priest of La Crosse who I studied with at the NAC, had spotted me from a ways off… He was just sitting alone in an outdoor confessional in the rain. So THAT prayer got promptly answered – he’s a good confessor, by the way.
The Power of Intercessory Prayer:
On Saturday, I was on a bus with a bunch of Sisters of Life from New York. The conversation turned to them praying for priests. As it happened, mutual friends had asked me to a pray for a priest (that I have never met) who has been going through a rough patch, and so I asked them to pray for him (using only his first name and diocese). Sister Sophia (pictured), was standing next to the sister I was talking to, and immediately piped in: “I’m already praying for him!” Turns out, despite living several time zones apart, she happened to know this priest, was aware of his struggles, and had been keeping him in her prayers. It was a heartening moment: she just kept saying, “he’s a beautiful soul.”
The Universal, and Suffering, Body of Christ:
At the Pope’s opening remarks on Thursday, I had the privilege of standing in front of a large contingent of Iraqi Christians. The timing was perfect, as I had just been to a talk by Jacqueline Isaac on the persecuted Christians in the Middle East. They were full of a contagious joy, as you can see:
I asked one of the women if I could take a photo of the back of her shirt (it had the WYD logo alongside a map of Iraq). She agreed. Afterwards, she came up and gave me an Iraqi World Youth Day key chain and a hug. It was a beautiful moment.
Poland’s Hidden Gems:
To celebrate the Feast of Saints Joachim and Anne on Tuesday, a few of the other seminarians and I decided to pray our holy hour in St. Anne’s Church, just outside of the old town area of Krakow. To our happy surprise, (a) the Church is a hidden gem, a Baroque masterpiece undiscovered by most of the other pilgrims; and (b) it’s the final resting place of St. John Cantius. A woman stationed at the front of the church filled us in on the Saint’s life, and lead us over to his Tomb, where we prayed together.
The Power of Common Worship:
There’s something very powerful about a group of people coming together in prayer. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Not for nothing, Hebrews calls us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). World Youth Day was a powerful witness of that coming together in prayer and encouragement. It was all the more powerful that so many of those present were young Catholics who were taking their faith seriously. At the vigil on Saturday I met Angela, a 19 year-old German, who gave voice to the effect that this had on her. Here’s Angela’s take:
The Power of Petitionary Prayer:
After visiting the famous Black Madonna at Częstochowa (like I said, there were too many graces to recount!), we visited the Polish monastery of the Community of the Lamb, my favorite religious community. If you can spare six minutes, listen to this sister’s witness. You won’t regret it. But this story isn’t about those sisters. It’s about one of the Little Sisters who wasn’t there.
On Sunday, after the closing Mass, we had the small problem of trying to make it back to Krakow amidst a sea of a couple million people all leaving at roughly the same time. A group of four of us – me, another seminarian, and two Franciscan sisters – were ready to be back. We had spent the night in an open-air campground and were happy-but-exhausted. It’s a several mile walk back, there are more than a million pilgrims between us and the place we were staying, our feet were sore, the other seminarian already had blisters, and we thought, “let’s go the easy route, and just find a cab.”
World Youth Day ends at noon, but we don’t get on the road for at least an hour. Krakow is to our west, but we decide to head south to the nearest town, and try to separate ourselves from the pack. We get to the train station at 2 and it’s not clear if the trains are even running. There’s a train possibly arriving at 3, but we decide that it would be crazy to wait an hour. And so we start walking south again. The Poles keep giving us directions, that if we just go 2 or 3 more kilometers, we’ll find such-and-such a bus stop or train station. Without fail, everything is overwhelmingly crowded. It’s impossible to hail a cab, board a bus, or get on a train. Finally, we make it all the way to Wieliczka, the famous salt mining town.
By this point, it’s 4 o’clock. We’ve been walking or standing-and-waiting for about three hours, and we are no closer to Krakow than when we first started. If anything, we’re actually further away. Our shortcut is not seeming so great. One of the sisters is praying that Mary will send us a taxi, and ponders aloud, “Why is she not doing this?” Mind you, we’re having a great experience throughout this, we’re having great conversations about the things of God, but we’re also exhausted, blistered, and just done. I’m sure I was not the only one ready for a shower, a nap, and a proper meal. It’s also hot, but with intermittent storms, so we are continually taking off and putting on ponchos throughout this trek.
Shortly after 4, the sky starts to get pretty ominous, but in a way that looks beautiful over the landscape. I stop to take this photo:
While I’m stopped, one of the Franciscan sisters looks down one of the side streets and says, “Wait, isn’t that one of the Little Sisters of the Lamb?” I call her out to her, and she runs over to us and says, “Joe, how is Rome?” She then says (and this is the amazing part), “I was upset because I was praying and had wanted to see you, but I was with this group of 550 French pilgrims when you visited our community, so I wasn’t able to see any of you, and I was so disappointed!”
At this point, the four of us are dumbstruck, because we all realize: Oh, we’ve been walking for three hours in the wrong direction because God wanted us to visit this Sister.
At this moment, the entire day changed dramatically. We pray with Little Sister Benedetta, and go our separate ways. At once, it starts to pour again and so we duck into a (fittingly) Franciscan church to pray for a while. After a few minutes, we’re back on the road, and within about five minutes, we see a train station. We start to head over there, and realize that it’s quite full. One of the sisters had suggested we get food some two or three hours prior, and so we decide that it might be time to stop for a quick bite. We see a convenience store, but it is surrounded, several people deep, with a crowd of people. We see a grocery store, and it’s even worse. Right when we are on the cusp of giving up on the food idea, the Sisters notice a tiny hotel restaurant that (somehow) doesn’t have anyone waiting outside. We go in.
The waitress who seats us tells us, “It’s fortunate you came in when you did, there were probably 400 people in here an hour ago, and we didn’t even know we could fit that many people” (the restaurant looks like it could seat maybe 140). Since it’s our only option, we decide that instead of the quick bite we were going to get, we’ll get a proper sit-down meal. While we are waiting for our food to arrive, something bizarre and wonderful happens. Out of a back room comes Angela (the German girl from the last story, remember?). Somehow, she just happened to be at this same random, hours-out-of-the-way hotel restaurant at the exact same time that we were. She comes over to the table over and says, “Joe! My group ordered some food, but we have to leave to get our train, so we’re going to send it to your table, okay?”
So what had begun as a “quick bite” and then became “a proper sit-down meal” was now something closer to “a feast.” We literally eat two dinners apiece. Our waitress, Maria, laughs at us and says, “You didn’t each much for two days, and now you are eating two days’ worth of food at once!” (Later, she tried to call us a cab, and quipped: “Do you want me to get you more food while you wait? It’s been three minutes since you last ate.” She was hilarious.). After the meal, the train station was miraculously clear – almost completely empty – a train arrives almost immediately upon our arrival, they let us ride for free, we get to the train station, and find a single taxi waiting at the door, which whisks us back to the campus where we were staying. Our arrival home: 8:45 p.m., more than eight hours after WYD let out. But we arrived back happier and more joyful than I can remember.