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World Youth Day Poland 2016 - Jonathan Antony

Originally, I hadn’t intended on going to the World Youth Day (WYD) in Poland this year. I considered the work load of Year 12 to be a good reason for not going. However, God had another plan for me. I decided mid-2015 to ask my Year 11 coordinator Mr Bloom for permission to go, just to see what he’d say. I expected he’d say no due to the tight rules from VCAA regarding attendance. However, after warning me about the effects it might have on my grades he said it was fine and it could be school approved. This, for me, was a surprise and a shock. I didn’t expect to receive permission and I definitely didn’t expect it would only take a 10-minute conversation. I decided then that it would be a waste not to go and recalled how powerful an experience the last WYD I went to in Spain. 
I began saving up for the trip and started to look forward to it. When the day finally arrived to board the plane and begin the arduous journey to Europe, the anticipation was unbearable. Arriving in Berlin, my pilgrimage began and the Lord began to work in all of us pilgrims from the Neocatechumenal Way. We started with a visit around Berlin, announcing the Gospel to the people as we went. Normally, this is a very embarrassing experience for me, but the realisation that I would never see these people again gave me ‘courage’. We had a Eucharist in a seminary on the outskirts of the city. The first of many, this Eucharist marked the moment where jet lag was forgotten and I entered fully into the pilgrimage. During the Eucharist, one of the catechists said something that particularly resonated with me. She said that on this pilgrimage, we would have the opportunity and the privilege to hear a word from God for our lives, if we stayed awake and stayed attentive. For me, this word helped me to forget my worries waiting for me back in Australia with work and school and really embrace whatever God was wanting to tell me during this pilgrimage. 
There are many things I could write about over the course of the pilgrimage, but it would take far too long. Every day was a combination of morning and evening prayers of the divine office, taking to the streets to sing and give our experiences to passers-by and catechesis’ on any significant landmarks or saints we came across.
One such saint that touched me was St. Maximillian Kolbe. A saint of the Second World War, Maximillian Kolbe was born as Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894. He was a Polish Franciscan friar and a martyr in the German Death Camp of Auschwitz during World War II.  Much of his life was strongly influenced by a vision he had of the Virgin Mary when he was 12. "That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both." 
In 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo because he published anti-Nazi publications, in Nazi occupied Poland. Never abandoning his priesthood, Kolbe was the victim of severe violence and harassment. Toward the end of his second month in Auschwitz, men were chosen to face death by starvation to warn against escapes. Kolbe was not chosen but volunteered to take the place of a man with a family. It is said during the last days of his life Kolbe led prayers to Our Lady with the prisoners and remained calm. He was the last of the group to remain alive, after two weeks of dehydration and starvation. The guards gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. The stories tell that he raised his left arm and calmly awaited death. St. Maximilian Kolbe died on August 14 and his remains were cremated on August 15, the same day as the Assumption of Mary feast day. His example of loving the other in the face of the horror of the Holocaust is something that really touched me and really asked the question of whether I would be able to do something like that in my own life. 
We visited Auschwitz 3 days before the actual meeting with the pope and the purpose of my pilgrimage. This place was one I immediately recognised without having to be told we had arrived because as soon as I saw the buildings I felt it. Like in icy hand gripping my heart. The entire place was a Place of Evil, Death and Dehumanisation which could be physically felt once inside. Of the 1.3 million people brought to Auschwitz I, 1.1 million people were slaughtered. 90% of these people were Jews. 
This place stood as a reminder of what can happen when people choose to follow the path of evil in their hearts. Good and Evil have always existed, and humans have the choice to pick between the two. What makes us chose evil? It is quite simple, as St Augustine says “Self-love to the point of contempt for God.” This contempt lead to Auschwitz which had the capacity to kill 1.6 million people per year. The method of killing was mainly the gas Zyclone B and by depravation and starvation. The way in which it was planned out and organised was shocking for me. The people in Auschwitz were dehumanised, made to appear and be treated as not even human. This was the justification by which all the murders were committed. What I took from this experience is the understanding that anyone can create a place such as Auschwitz when we reject God and dehumanise the other. 
You don’t have to physically murder a person to do the same thing as the Nazi’s. How many people have I myself dehumanised and murdered through my words or my actions? Even in our society today, how many unborn babies are killed because we label them as ‘not alive’ or ‘not human’. The very same thing that he Nazi’s did. It’s around 100,000 babies a year in Australia by the way. We can all do the same things that the Nazi’s did, and this realisation scared me. It is so easy to condemn the Nazi’s and give them labels such as Evil and convince ourselves that we would never do anything like that, but in reality, we are not so different. We call them detention centres. The church calls the suffering of the people in Auschwitz ‘the suffering of the innocents’. 
Many people use the example of Auschwitz as a reason for why God does not exist, because if God exists, why didn’t he stop it. If I’m honest, this thought crossed my mind while in the camp. However, to the Christian, this is not true. God was with those people in Auschwitz because if he did save them physically from the camp, they would still live to die later in life. God however did something much more amazing. As we know, he sent Christ in the world to die for us. But what does this mean? How does this apply to the horror of this genocide? Christ died for all so that all may live. Meaning, that although those people were subjected to torture and death by the Nazi’s, Christ was with them in their suffering, and in the moment of their death, took their death upon himself on the Cross and raised them to Eternal life where they are now, where no one can ever harm them again. For me in my life, this message was one of hope. That Christ died for us, no matter what we have done in our lives. No matter what sins, or whatever we think is unforgivable, has been forgiven.
After Auschwitz came the meeting with the Pope and the reason for the WYD. Many things he said touched me, but two things in particular which I will write about. The first is his warning against being a ‘couch’ Christian. This warning basically meant to not get stuck sitting on a couch watching the world go by and actually get up and do something in the world. In regards to Christianity, it means not to allow the gift we’ve been given in our faith to sit dormant on a sofa while the world passes by, but to actually use it and show it. The pope said that we are all meant to enjoy a much greater joy then to sit on the couch and relax. Sure, a couch is comfortable and it can bring happiness, but God has a plan in our lives that can give to us joy. A Joy that has no end, that lasts forever. Unlike happiness which lasts but a moment. To get off the couch and seek the joy that comes from the love of God, shown to us through Jesus Christ. Something that I found on this pilgrimage.
The second thing was his homily on the gospel of Zacchaeus. In order to reach Christ, Zacchaeus had to overcome three obstacles in his life that also apply to us in our lives. The first obstacle is smallness of stature. Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because he was little. Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation, it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself. To not accept ourselves, to live glumly, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity. God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours makes him change his mind. As far as Jesus is concerned as the Gospel shows, no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love, for him, all of us are important. God counts on us for what we are, not for what we possess. In his eyes the clothes you wear or the kind of phone you use are of absolutely no concern. He doesn’t care whether we are stylish or not, he cares about us!  In his eyes, we are precious, and our value is inestimable, each of us, individually. 
The second obstacle is the paralysis of shame. Zacchaeus had to be ready to die to his pride and accept looking like a fool to climb the tree and see Jesus. How many times have we not done things because we are afraid of failing or afraid of looking foolish? For me, too many times. This paralysis of shame the Pope speaks about is profound and should speak to everyone. The Pope gave me a call to forget my pride and seek only the Lord. 
The third obstacle between Jesus and Zacchaeus was the crowd around him that blocked and criticised him. The Pope said that people in our lives will try to block us from reaching Christ. In response the Pope said that we as Christians must love the other, our enemies and never stop searching for the Lord in our lives. It’s easy to hate those who block us in our lives. Like all those people who thought and told me I was being stupid for taking 3 weeks off during year 12. Even those who didn’t say it, but whom I believe secretly thought it. It’s very easy to judge those people and allow them to block us. But what the Pope said is true, that these people like those in the crowd of Zacchaeus, have to be loved but you mustn’t allow them to succeed in blocking you from Christ. Love your enemies means that, to love the people who put obstacles in your life. If we cannot love our enemies, then we cannot seek Christ and follow him. And not a superficial love either, but a love replicating the love Jesus has for us. A very strong homily that resonated within me. 
Finally, the last thing I will write about is the vocational meeting with Kiko Arguello, the initiator of the Neocatechumenal Way. He said many things that day, but it is all too much to write about, and this piece is getting long enough as it is! The only thing I will say about the meeting is that around 3000 boys stood up in an answer to the call for the priesthood and 4000 girls for consecrated life. These numbers prove that the Christian faith today is not dead and that people from around the world are answering the call from God. A very reassuring sign. 
There are many things I haven’t written about here, but these were the most significant parts. I am so fortunate to be able to experience all these things and I thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity, unworthy as I am, to begin my high school years with a WYD in Year 7 in Spain and to end it in year 12 with Poland. Both pilgrimages gave me direction in my life, and I look forward to 2019 in Panama! 

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