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College Knights on Pilgrimage: Speaking Mercy, Witnessing to Hope

World Youth Day 2016 | Knights of Columbus

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College Knights discover the hope and joy of Poland’s Catholic history in days leading up to WYD 2016

Keep the faith. Have hope.

These are hard things to put into practice in today’s world, where the daily news is full of political strife, violence, terror and racial tension. Even more disheartening are the stories of men, women and children being murdered, tortured, or forced to flee their homes simply because they are Christian.

It’s enough to make anyone despair.

Anyone, except the countless young men and women visiting Kraków, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016. In Kraków, thousands of Catholic youth from around the world are gathering for one of the largest international events for Catholics. The city suffered dramatically during World War II, with many of its greatest intellectuals and countless of its citizens sent to die at Auschwitz. Despite having suffered grave losses, Kraków now stands as an indelible sign that men and women — when motivated by love and mercy — can experience joy in the face of the greatest of evils.

This joy is tangible and strong, as experienced by a group of College Knights during a pilgrimage just prior to the main events of World Youth Day. The group of 30 young men has come from colleges and seminaries throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Poland to join their brother Knights in Kraków and its surrounding cities.

Matt Fraley, a college Knight attending St. Francis University in Loretta, Penn., explains that the purpose of the pilgrimage is to walk in the footsteps of St. John Paul II. On his blog, posted at troubadour.francis.edu, he explains, “We were reminded that this is a pilgrimage. It’s more than a sightseeing trip. We have constantly been in prayer. While in prayer, we are to listen to God’s calling …We must keep our minds and our hearts open, for we never know when God will have something for us.”

Guiding the College Knights on this journey are several priests and Sisters of Life, including Dominican priests Father Benedict Croell and Father James Cuddy. The priests explained their hopes for the Knights, saying that they want them “to have a beautiful time getting to know the country so that when they’re in Kraków next week, they’ll be able to share some of the fruits of what they’ve seen and give their own testimony of hope to all of the thousands of pilgrims that will be coming to the Mercy Center at Tauron Arena Kraków.”

The Knights began their pilgrimage on July 19 at the K of C-sponsored Villa Maria Guadalupe, which is run by the Sisters of Life, where many of them met each other for the first time. Upon arriving in Poland they journeyed to Wadowice, touring the childhood home of Karol Wojtyła, today’s St. John Paul II.

With the Sisters of Life, they toured the death camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau and attended the Mass of Reconciliation during the tour. It was a grave and solemn experience, leaving them with a sense of honor. “The men realized that they are standing on hallowed ground in the site of real sacrifice, suffering and loss —one of the greatest in the 20th century,” said Father Cuddy.

Other places in Poland left the Knights with a sense of personal history, particularly the Shrine of Our Lady of Ludźmierz, which hosted the first Admission Degree Ceremony in Poland; the Chochołowska Trail, where Pope John Paul II visited in 1983; and the city of Kraków, where they were given a personal tour by George Weigel, noted biographer of Pope John Paul II.

As they traveled throughout the city, their matching shirts bearing the Knights of Columbus and World Youth Day logos allowed everyone to instantly recognize them. Their camaraderie and joy were contagious, sharing with the world what it means to be Catholic — and to be a Knight of Columbus.

As they concluded their pilgrimage before taking part in the main events of World Youth Day, they continued their fraternal experience during a Mass celebrated by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in the city of Nowa Huta (The New Steel Mill). Founded by communists leaders with the intent of being “a city without God’” it is now a visible example of the power of prayer, love and mercy over anger, hatred and assaults on religious freedom family values and a moral culture. Its striking modern Arka Pana church — where Archbishop Lori celebrated Mass — was built from the direct efforts and encouragement of Archbishop Karol Wotyła.

Archbishop Lori explained during his homily that, “With a combination of wisdom, shrewdness, and sheer perseverance, Karol Wojtyła, sought to undermine the ill-fated experiment of Nowa Huta.”

“He finally prevailed on May 15, 1977, when he dedicated this very church here in Nowa Huta,” Archbishop Lori explained to the Knights. “The future St. John Paul II took enormous risks to build a church here to symbolize, protect, and foster all that is central to our human dignity. For that reason, he stands in our times as a witness to freedom.”

After the Mass, Archbishop Lori joined the College Knights for dinner, their last together before diving into the volunteer efforts at the Mercy Centre. Like a family gathered around the dinner table, the College Knights laughed and joked with the archbishop, sharing their appreciation and joy with him as their spiritual father and guide. Their laughter extended throughout the restaurant and out into the streets, and continued as they headed to their dormitory in Kraków. As they made their way on tram, they encountered various other groups of young people in the city for World Youth Day and their enthusiasm magnified, as they joined the other pilgrims in song and dance in praise of the Lord and in gratitude for his mercy.

The College Knights will conclude their time together by volunteering at the Mercy Centre at Tauron Arena Kraków, where they will join several hundred K of C volunteers from Poland, Ukraine, Mexico and the United States to share the fraternal love that will conquer all and continue to shine forth and witness to the joy of Christ’s mercy.