Vancouver World Youth Day pilgrims got together on May 27 for their last formation gathering before leaving for Krakow, Poland. Photo/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Vancouver

Canadian pilgrims to experience 'Catholic Woodstock' after years of planning

  • July 24, 2016

More than two million young people from around the world are expected to descend on the city of Krakow for a week of spiritual formation as the Polish city hosts World Youth Day from July 26-31.

The throngs will be gathering for what is every few years the biggest event for the Catholic Church.

For many of the 3,750 Canadian pilgrims in Krakow, they have been planning their trip for three years, since that day in July 2013 at World Youth Day in Rio Di Janeiro when Pope Francis announced Krakow as the 2016 host. Now, all the sacrifices and hard work will pay off in a week that has come to be known to many as Catholic Woodstock.

Mireille Grenier from the youth office at the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, Man., said in the weeks leading up to WYD, the main focus was getting the last-minute details in order for the 30 pilgrims she has led to the city that was home to Karol Wojtyla, the Polish priest who would become known to the world as Pope John Paul II. 

“Also, just to keep that excitement for World Youth Day, we host a Facebook group and people have been posting daily, ‘Look at this cool article’ or ‘Oh my God, they have their own Snapchat,’ ” said Grenier. “Just creating that buzz and keeping that alive and also answering questions from pilgrims as they come.”

Grenier worked together with counterparts in the Archdioceses of Winnipeg and Keewatin-Le Pas to organize their pilgrimage trip. For two years, they hosted monthly meetings to keep pilgrims updated on the planning process. Although it has been a challenging undertaking, Grenier said the three archdioceses have forged strong bonds as a result.

“We’ve done so much work... and we’ve become friends,” she said. “I think the best thing we’re going to see is all of us together.”

Jesuits English Canada organized its own delegation, with pilgrims spanning the country. Jesuit scholastic John O’Brien said it was challenging, but exciting, to be planning the pilgrimage.

“The young adults that are joining the Jesuits group hail from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, so we’ve had to be in contact with a great many people,” said O’Brien. “It’s going to be an exciting adventure, but also be a profound spiritual experience.”

The Archdiocese of Vancouver has sent the largest Canadian diocesan delegation with about 450 pilgrims. Gerard Garcia is the main organizer of the Vancouver delegation. He said the Youth and Young Adult Ministry Office has been working towards this pilgrimage for more than two years. 

Garcia said in the last few months, pilgrim groups in the different parishes have been learning more about Poland and its culture in preparation for the trip. On May 27, the diocesan pilgrims group celebrated its last formation gathering with a Polish-themed event.

“We had Polish performances during the event,” he said. “There were two young girls that wore Polish dresses and sang for us and then we had a Polish dance couple give us two performances. Then, we had the Polish consul general Krysztof Olendzki and his wife share their experiences about World Youth Day.”

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, 600 Polish-Canadian pilgrims gathered at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Mississauga on June 5 for a special send-off Mass. 

“For some people, it’s like they’re going back home. For others, it’s like we’re going to our second home,” said Simone Zamarlik, a member of the WYD committee at the suburban parish, which has the largest Polish congregation outside of Poland. “But we’re there to be witness and to represent the youth of Canada.”

The Diocese of London approached the journey to Krakow with the same attitude. The diocese has a large Polish community guided by the Michaelite Fathers (the Congregation of St. Michael the Archangel).

Dan Moynihan, youth co-ordinator for the diocese, said the pilgrimage is a familial experience for the 250 young people.

“We’re blessed to have the Michaelite Fathers to be serving within our diocese and it’s a Polish order in origin,” said Moynihan. “All the communities that we’re staying in are all Michaelite parishes and communities.”

Moynihan said many of the priests and bishops travelling with their group are looking forward to taking the young people to their hometowns. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Dabrowski is looking forward to showing the group the holy sites in Poland, as well as the place where he grew up.

“It will give me a chance to show them a little bit of Poland and the history and heritage,” said Dabrowski.

For the London diocese and for other diocesan youth ministries, World Youth Day is an opportunity to call on its young people for a heightened spiritual formation. Moynihan said the WYD experience will build future leaders in the local Church.

“From a diocesan perspective, it’s really important for our diocesan family to be integrated and to be shaped by that experience, not just for the sake of the pilgrims, but also for the sake of entire parish communities that support these young people,” he said.

Although they are few in number, Bernadette Chevarie and three other pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlottetown have made sure the community knows how much they appreciate their support. 

“On the island, we have such a great Catholic and Christian community that we knew that anything that can really help them in their faith, they would be on board, so we wanted to do something for them,” she said. 

Chevarie and her friends made presentations in parishes to teach about WYD and Pope St. John Paul II. As part of their fundraising campaign, Chevarie’s pilgrim group organized PJPII Hikes for youth. It was an opportunity for them to share what they’ve learned about St. John Paul II with an activity that the founder of the WYD phenomenon himself loved. 

Chevarie said her group is already talking about what can be done to continue giving back to the community after its return from the pilgrimage to Poland.

For the young people in Krakow representing the Canadian Catholic Church, a national celebration will be held July 26, the first day of World Youth Day week, at Tauron Arena at 1 p.m. Quebec Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, primate of Canada, will be presiding over the event alongside eight Canadian bishops, priests, consecrated persons, youth ministers, musicians, artists and young pilgrims.

(Youth Speak News Editor Ko Din is taking in WYD 2016 with the youth group from her parish. Follow her journey and other stories from Krakow at

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    July 26, 2016: The shrine of the Black Madonna was opened to World Youth Day pilgrims so that they could venerate the miraculous image up close. (Photo by Jean Ko Din)

    Follow our reporter Jean Ko Din as she photographs her journey to Krakow, Poland for the 2016 World Youth Day.