To be completely transparent, I had no clue as to what lay before me across the Atlantic. I had no idea what level of talent I would be working with (if I did I probably would’ve been so intimidated that I would have found a way to turn down a very convincing Polish OP), nor did I have any idea what beautiful and inspiring people I would cross paths with from all over the world, let alone the amount of joy all grace that would be showered upon me in Kraków.
Not knowing any of this, in the days leading up to starting my journey I was fraught with anxiety and stress about every little thing that didn’t even make sense to worry about. Added to this was the timing of World Youth Day relative to what is going on in the larger world as well as in my own life. With one year left of my undergrad and the increasing uncertainty of my own life and vocation, I felt the awful combination of simultaneously feeling stuck and like I was free falling.
My father reminded me, during one of my onslaughts of anxiety: Just trust in the Black Madonna. She will take care of you and everything will work out. Now at the time I knew this in my brain to be true, but convincing my heart to let go and trust was much more difficult.
The day of my flight arrived, and my anxieties only amplified. Would the other people in my group like me? Would I at least get along with them? Would this cold keep me from hitting my soprano notes? Would I even be able to sing well enough, being so out of practice? Will I be feeling well enough to get through all that is WYD, or would I be in constant pain or pass out from exhaustion? What about this thing that was going on back at home and insert this or that drama here? On top of this, at my first layover, news was breaking of the shooting in Munich. Weather in Europe the night before caused delays and cancellations.
All of this, of what in retrospect was all essentially fear, swirling around in my head made it incredibly tempting to try to make up my mind to fall into a less than honorable default of mine: to be isolated and cold and not open up my heart to new people, experiences, or the Holy Spirit trying to move in me. Yes, this was tempting. But as usual I found myself sleepless on the plane, and so I found myself saying I don’t even know how many rosaries in between films. (Okay, I was trying to get caught up on a novena, but that’s a whole other story – and as Justin would remind me to remind you, I’m a Latin Catholic Person, so I get to do these things!). The repetition and feel of the beads between my fingers kept me grounded and soothed me, and closing my eyes picturing the dark and scarred face of Our Lady I knew that I needed to remain open and trusting, even though it felt so difficult.Yes, blessings were already finding their way into every delay and difficulty, but it was not until I had finally landed in the Kraków airport that I finally was able to find some peace. Having gotten through customs and locating the spot I was supposed to meet up with my group, there was a tiny bit of time to kill and as was discovered, a Eucharistic chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II. Other than my travel companion, there was one sole stranger in the quiet chapel. A side chapel on either side was dedicated to Divine Mercy and the Black Madonna respectively. As the then-stranger later informed me, apparently I dropped my luggage, quickly genuflected, and “literally ran” over to Our Lady and just sat there, gazing up at her.
I am not sure how long I sat there gazing at her dark and scarred face. But I know that instantly all my anxieties were gone. I knew that she wanted to me to trust that it was okay, and the funny thing was I no longer had to try so hard, but by then I just knew. I knew it was going to be okay. More than okay, but beautiful and wonderful.
On the bus ride to my first destination (a retreat house out in a small town), the winding streets we went down were scattered with little shrines to the Blessed Mother. The Black Madonna is often referred to over there as the Queen of Poland, and everywhere I went, I could find her anywhere and everywhere. It got to the point where it was as if I had some kind of internal radar to find her. And everywhere I found her I would have to stop, just for a second, and gaze at her. At times I even had to kneel before her, sometimes in tears, because I was still scared of the unknowns in my life. But now I knew that she would watch over me always.
So I literally ran to her. But it shouldn’t be any other way. She is more than Queen of Poland, she is Queen of Heaven and Earth. She is our mother. She is my mother. And she will be there when you have no idea where else to go.
Pope Francis’ words concluding his aforementioned address at Wawel echo in my head: “May Our Lady of Czestochowa bless and protect Poland!” – as does what my Eastern Catholic friends would say, Most Holy Theotokos, save us. And I am reminded of what I learned at the airport: Run to her. Always.