It was July 2002. I stared out the window in amazement as the airplane began its descent. Green, so much green. As far as the eye could see, there were hills, forests, rolling farmland. My heart raced with excitement. At 19 I was taking my first trip outside North America to a place I had always dreamed of visiting: Kraków, Poland. I would spend the next four weeks studying the language of my ancestors and immersing myself in a thousand-year-old history and culture of one of Europe´s most intriguing civilizations. I would follow a Holocaust survivor on a visit to the former Krakow ghetto; I would hear Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz read from his work; I would take classes with passionate, erudite professors who would lead me to believe that maybe, just maybe, it would one day be possible for me to become a professor myself.
Now, it is July 2016. Two days ago, I again stared out the window as the plane descended into Kraków´s Pope John Paul II Airport. When I landed, I immediately noticed that the facilities had been renovated since my last visit. There was now a snazzy train connecting the terminal to the city. Taxi fare was a flat rate (unlike fourteen years ago, when drivers would size passengers up and charge as much as they thought they could get away with). There were new highways, new big chain stores. But as I dragged my oversized, book-laden suitcase up to the yellow, communist-era student hotel where I stayed fourteen years ago, I saw that very little had changed. After unpacking my bag, I left maps and smartphones behind and wandered toward the Old Town, trusting that my feet would remember the way. As familiar sites loomed before me – the old Town Hall, the opulent St. Mary´s Church, the statue of Poland´s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz – I nearly wept. I was home.
During the next three weeks, I will again take courses with the aim of relearning the Polish language (which I have studied intermittently over the past decade and a half). Then, at the end of this month, I will have the tremendous privilege of participating in an event that has always intrigued me: World Youth Day, when one and a half million young Catholics from around the globe are expected to converge on this city to hear Pope Francis speak.
¨Oh Jeannine,¨ sighed one of my oldest and dearest friends a few weeks ago when I told her my plans. ¨Can you really call yourself a youth?¨ At that I had to smile. In a culture where thirtieth birthdays are more often a cause for lamentation than joy, I suppose I cannot claim to be so youthful anymore. But most often, when I attend Mass in any North American city, I struggle to find others in my age group – particularly unmarried 20 and 30-somethings. Most of the congregation consists of older folks, or else parents with school-age children. But older millennials like me are somewhat more rare. Most of the people I attended Catholic schools with as a child and teenager no longer practise the religion of their upbringing; I am well aware that many have lost their faith, as I myself have come close to doing so many times. And so, I laughed at my friend´s question. ¨By the standards of the Catholic Church, I am most definitely a youth.¨
During these first days of my language program, I am already beginning to enjoy this hybrid status as both old and young. At thirty-three I am a tenure-track professor with a long and eclectic assortment of experiences, some twenty-year old friendships, and the bitter, truly adult awareness that I will imminently be the sole caregiver to my aging parents. On the other hand, I am unmarried with little money in the bank and even less interest in pursuing such culturally-sanctioned grown-up goals as buying a house and filling it with possessions (other than books, my perpetual downfall).
In a strange way this in-between state allows me to connect with people of many ages. During the past two days I have met a 40-something year old Englishman who is relocating to Warsaw for work, a Colombian woman my age who wants to be able to speak to her Polish husband´s family, and a retired German man who already speaks seven languages and thought it would be fun to learn one more. I am also meeting many young American university students who seem like carbon copies of the timid yet curious young girl I was fourteen years ago.
I can´t help but smile as I listen to theese 19-year-olds´ anxieties, which were exactly the same as mine when I first came to Poland in 2002.(¨Everyone is asking me what I plan to do with my English major once I finish university, and I hate having to tell them I don´t know!¨). It is fun to play mother hen and tell them not to worry, to assure them that in time they will find their place. At the same time, I realize that many of their fears – such as the growing political divisions in Europe and the US, widespread economic injustice, and the growing ecological crisis – are the same as mine. And unfortunately, these have no easy answers.
At the beginning of this century, when I was a senior in a Catholic high school, our campus minister asked one of my artistically talented classmates to create a large banner showcasing the words, ¨Embrace the World with Hope¨ – a tapestry that still hangs in the school´s chapel. Back in 2000 (that other Jubilee Year) it was hard to see hope amid the Balkan wars, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and society´s widespread disregard for the most vulnerable of its members. At 17 I never could have predicted that the coming years would bring even more seemingly hopeless realities: the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the many more that have followed; the declaration of a ¨war on terror¨ that arguably can never be won; the economic crisis of 2008; the eruption of war in many parts of the world; and the rise of divisive nationalism, racism and xenophobia throughout not insubstantial pockets of American and European society. Hope is more difficult and essential to maintain now than it ever was. And yet, hope is not enough. As Pope Francis has exhorted us throughout this Jubilee Year, we need to embrace our broken world with something that demands quite a lot of us: mercy.
I look forward to my first World Youth Day with no expectations but many desires. I yearn to be inspired by our spirit-filled pope to work for the coming of God´s kingdom in this world. I hope to gain insight into how I might bring mercy to those who need it most. And, above all else, I hope to meet Catholic ¨youth¨ – whether they be fifteen years old or fifty-five – and experience the solidarity of the global church. My mind is filled with questions for the many people I hope to meet. What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian in the 21st century? How are we called to respond to the rapidly changing realities that surround us? How are we to share the gospel message with an increasingly globalized and secularized world?
It is with excitement and joy that I raise these questions. And, if I get any answers, I will be even more excited to share them with you.