For Father Jonathan Kalisch, a video reel highlight of last year’s World Youth Day was seeing five young Canadians in a suburban hockey arena.
That’s pretty normal sounding, you say? Well, yes. But what distinguished them from most kids their age was the arena being in Krakow, Poland rather than, say, Peterborough, Ontario.
And they weren’t carrying the puck in over the blue line. They were bearing the relics of five saints including Saint John Paul II, who came from Krakow to be history’s first Polish pope.
In the ancient City of Saints, youthful Canadian hands brought forward for Veneration fragments of those called home to God through martyrdom or, as in Saint John Paul II’s case, a long life devoted entirely to Christian faith and service.
“We asked five young Canadians to process in carrying those five saints. It was one of the highlights for the pilgrims coming to the arena. We had people lined up for hours just to get in and pray in front of each of (the reliquaries),” Father Kalisch says.
The spirit of exuberant reverence and eager devotion is what producers sought to communicate in World Youth Day Krakow: A Pilgrimage of Mercy, which has its world premiere this Sunday, Feb. 26 on Salt + Light Television.
“What we were trying to do in the video was capture the truth that these same saints were once young people just like these young people. They once made their own acts of laying down their lives, so we were intentional about there being a sense of vocation as well, to help the young people contemplate these witnesses to Christ and say ‘What about you? What are you called to do with your life?’”
A U.S.-based Dominican priest who is the director of chaplains and spiritual development for the Knights of Columbus, Kalisch was executive director of the Mercy Centre in Krakow during World Youth Day.
The Centre transformed a 20,000-seat hockey arena into a focal point of spiritual preparation for English-speaking pilgrims among the 2.5 million who gathered for WYD between July 25 and 31 of last year.
“The genius behind World Youth Day is that you have all these young adults accompanied by their priests, their pastors, their leaders,” Kalisch says over the phone from Toronto where he is doing promotional work for the Feb. 26 broadcast of the video.
“But every day at the Centre, we had 20,000 young people in the arena where they could look around and say ‘There are all these people right beside me striving to live discipleship, to live this way of life.’ It’s a very powerful witness and testimony for any young adult.”
Indeed, among the video’s historically powerful images such as Pope Francis visiting Auschwitz, young people speaking the simple truth of faith in their own words strike some of its most riveting notes.
Referencing the sheer size of the pilgrim crowds, one young man says they became an accompaniment toward solitude.
“You realize it’s not just you and Jesus,” he says. “But then it is just you and Jesus.”
Another captures Auschwitz in a profoundly simple sentence:
“What I learned is that you can react (to the world) with hate and anger, or you can react to it with love and rejoicing.”
Since Mercy was the theme of 2016 WYD, the video opens up to voices from the persecuted Church in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. They are juxtaposed against the suffering of Christians in Poland and Eastern Europe for much of the 20th century.
Yet one pilgrim alerts viewers to the way hostile North American culture can inflict a persecution that falls short of physical torment but can also, in its own way, mortally wound the life of faith.
Traveling to Poland, living alongside his brother and sisters in Christian faith, the teenager says, renewed the interior conviction that: “It’s normal to be Catholic. It’s good to be Catholic.”
For Father Kalisch, such connection to the real world goodness of faith have been present from World Youth Day’s inception when 300,000 young people acted on an invitation from Pope John Paul II to gather in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday of 1984.
It was certainly there, he recalls, in Toronto in 2002. He’s confident it will be there in 2019 in Panama.
“One of the Bishops in Krakow said the beauty of World Youth Day is young people seeing thousands of young people on their knees adoring the Lord. They’ve never been in that situation. Many come from parishes where there are not a lot of young people practicing the faith. It’s a powerful witness to inspire them to say to each other ‘You are more normal than your home situation might tell you.’”
Normal, you might say, as Canadian kids in a hockey rink.
World Youth Day Krakow: A Pilgrimage of Mercy airs Sunday Feb. 26 on Salt + Light Television at 9 PM EST. It will air again on March 1 at 8 p.m. and on Apr. 9 at 8 p.m.
EWTN will air the film for American audiences during the spring of 2017.
A DVD is available through Ignatius Press and Knights Gear.