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A Pilgrimage of Joy


Alton J. Pelowski

Polish Knights and their family members who served as volunteers at the site hold flags of the Order and of their home jurisdiction. (Photo by Roberto Fiorina)


Amid his visits to 129 countries, St. John Paul II endeared himself to people of every race and tongue. Yet, admiration for the late pontiff remains unsurpassed in his home country of Poland, where he is celebrated as a national hero. In late April, as the population of Rome swelled with pilgrims for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the streets were filled with Polish pilgrims eager to honor their beloved pope.

Nearly 1,000 of those pilgrims stayed at two of the Order’s five “playgrounds,” recreation facilities that have served the youth of Rome for nine decades. Established in response to a request by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, the vision for the playgrounds was inspired by the Order’s World War I Army Hut program, which served under the motto, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” This same hospitality was extended to pilgrims seeking clean facilities and a safe place to camp during their time in Eternal City April 25-29.

A team of some 30 volunteers, consisting of Polish Knights and their families, joined K of C staff members to ensure that the pilgrims’ needs were met and their stay memorable. By Friday, busloads of people had arrived at the two playgrounds, located in Rome’s San Lorenzo and Ciampino districts. The sites, named after Pope Benedict XV and Count Enrico Galeazzi, the first director of the Order’s Rome Office, were soon bustling with activity as exuberant pilgrims pitched hundreds of colorful tents, cooked food, played music and enjoyed each other’s company.

On Saturday morning, Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore celebrated Mass for pilgrims at Benedict XV Field, together with Dominican Father Jonathan Kalisch, director of chaplain and spiritual development, and five Polish chaplains. Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and his wife, Dorian, together with Enrico Demajo, director of the Rome Office, were also present.

In many ways, the atmosphere in Rome in the days surrounding the canonization was reminiscent of World Youth Day, an initiative that John Paul II began nearly 30 years earlier. At the K of C sites, for instance, was a group of more than 200 Polish scouts, as well as dozens of young hitchhikers who made their way to Rome. In most cases, the youth never had the opportunity to see John Paul II in person before his death in 2005, but they were still drawn to Rome to celebrate his life and holiness. Though it rained during several days of the pilgrimage and most people were unable to get anywhere near St. Peter’s Square for the April 27 Mass of canonization, a spirit of joy, fraternity and gratitude remained.

The hospitality of the Knights of Columbus volunteers, meanwhile, left a lasting impression. Many people were introduced to the Order for the first time through the pilgrimage, and their positive experience was widely reported by U.S. and Polish media. The Polish Knights even held a First Degree exemplification on site on the evening of the canonization, adding to the more than 3,300 members in Poland. And so, at the conclusion of these grace-filled days of celebration, the pilgrims returned home, thankful for the gift of friendship, countless memories and a renewed faith.

ALTON J. PELOWSKI is editor of Columbia.