We made it! Even my mother, who made it home with 100% of the teenagers she took with her, which is 20% better than what I deem acceptable on such outings.
World Youth Day 2016 was a resounding success: everyone had close encounters with their faith, the kids all said they’d do it again, and everyone told me that the volunteers did a phenomenal job, even though roughly half of us had no idea what we were doing.
We the volunteers worked long hours in Poland. There were two types of shifts: a short shift, which lasted 10 hours, and a long shift, which lasted 12. I’m sure that made sense to somebody, but when you’re working crowd control for 12 hours, oftentimes without a break (I got exactly one break, and that was during the last of my four shifts), you start to wonder who the heck that made sense to.
I was a ticket checker for all the main events: the Welcome Mass, the Papal Welcome, the Stations of the Cross, and the Vigil. That meant that I was responsible for checking people’s tickets and making sure that the number on their ticket corresponded with the number of the section they were going into. I was also always stationed in the sections closest to the stage (aka, where the Pope was), which means my job quickly devolved into a game of “Let’s See How Well Becky Can Manage Chaos.” I’m telling you what, angry football fans ain’t got nothing on Catholics who think they might get gypped out of seeing the Pope. Not only that, we had 2.5 million of them in the same field.
As a reward – or perhaps an incentive – for the work that we put forth, all the volunteers had the opportunity to attend a meeting with the Pope after the final mass. It’s a tradition that the volunteers have, and Pope Francis, being the outspoken proponent of service that he is, was not going to miss it.
I had much the same sentiment; I’d plodded through two and a half weeks’ worth of work, mud, angry Catholics, twelve-hour shifts with no breaks, and days where my meals consisted of three ham sandwiches and a drinkable yogurt. All the times I’d seen the Pope during WYD, I’d been working and couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. Obviously, you expect this as an event volunteer, but I became a bit resentful of it when I had to tell off a kid for leaving his section without his ticket, which he needed for re-entry, in order to get French fries in the middle of the Stations of the Cross.
Leading up to the meeting with the Pope, I’d worked three consecutive long shifts with less than eight hours in between. I worked the Papal Welcome on Thursday, Stations of the Cross on Friday, went to the Sanktuarium Bożego Miłosierdzia (sahnk-too-ah-ree-oom boh-zhey-goh mee-who-sher-zhah; Sanctuary of Divine Mercy) in the morning on Saturday, took the tram across town to the end of the line, made a 10 km pilgrimage walk to Campus Misericordiae, worked a 10-hour shift during the Vigil (Saturday was at least an 18-hour day for me), caught four hours of sleep on a tarp in a field, then made the pilgrimage walk in reverse to catch the tram back to the volunteers’ residence to take a shower and snatch a coffee, then headed back out again to go to the arena where the meeting was taking place. Now, before you throw Matthew 6:3 at me, try this one on for size: I didn’t even have it bad. Most volunteers were coming right from their work assignments, sans showers and coffee. Many of them had had to work at Campus Misericordiae from midnight the night before up through the mass at 10:30am and then high-tail it across town to make it.
They told us to be there at noon, and the Pope didn’t arrive until 5. They organized a concert for us while we were waiting: one of the groups which had performed at the WYD in Częstochowa in 1991. Luckily, they also arranged for the concession stands to be open while we were there, so we were able to obtain coffee in those five hours.
When the Pope finally arrived, he made the wait worth our while. He was visibly exhausted – I believe the word to describe how he sat down in his chair is kerplop – but when he started talking to us, his enthusiasm shone through. He began by reading a speech he’d prepared for us in Italian. I was happy with this arrangement, because I know some Italian, and can generally understand the Pope when he speaks it. After reading about half a page, he stopped, looked at us and said (in Italian), “I wrote this long discourse, but I don’t think it’s as good as I wanted. So maybe just this?” pointing at the last page. There were some cheers from us sleep-deprived and largely non-Italian speaking volunteers. He was about to recommence when he said (again in Italian), “I’ll just leave these here,” and gave his speech to the bishop sitting next to him. He then proceeded to speak in Spanish, which was a very popular move with the large contingent of Spanish-speaking volunteers.
My high-school Spanish was almost enough to get the meaning of his speech, and I caught the three most important words he gave us: memoria, coraje, and futuro. He told us that we could be volunteers for Christ and return for the next World Youth Day in Panama on two conditions: We had to remember the past (he suggested talking to our grandparents) and have courage in the present (to bear testimony to what we believe). By doing those two things, he said, we would bring hope to the future.
Not so bad for an off-the-cuff speech.
I should also note that his face simply lit up when he asked for and received permission to speak in Spanish. For a man as tired as he was to be that excited to speak to a group of people he doesn’t know was so powerful. And it left almost everyone saying that they’d at least consider returning to World Youth Day as volunteers, next time in Panama.
For those who are interested, you can watch Pope Francis’s speech at the volunteers’ meeting (with an English translation) here.
For those of you who are really interested, you can read the full transcript of the speech Pope Francis prepared for the volunteers and then discarded here.