I felt as if I were panting. The next water station was far off. My feet throbbed as each step clunked on the pavement, inching closer to our destination: "home." My thoughts were fuzzy and the line to get enough coffee to stifle my headache would've taken hours. Newfound friends and I walked in silence, almost zombie-like; we were exhausted and sore. I grasped a rosary in my right hand and attempted to pray.
On that day in late July, we were surrounded by 2 million companions in the same condition - we were all marching, embracing the same Catholic faith, on our way from morning Mass with Pope Francis as part of World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. The night before, the Saturday Overnight Vigil, we'd slept outside in cramped quarters, with food and liquids stuffing our backpacks and dew drenching our clothes by morning.
But we lucky few slept under the stars, ever fortunate to be among the 207 pilgrims traveling with the Arlington Diocese on a pilgrimage organized by the Office of Youth Ministry to World Youth Day.
There were many trials and tribulations, all overshadowed by joy. I like to say: In the world overwhelmed, in Christ overflowing. The difference depends completely on your perspective.
As diocesan coordinator of digital and social media, I traveled to #Krakow2016 in order to cover the experience for those watching back home. There were a number of times when I simply could not do my job; God required me to be present in those moments. Listening to these nudges led often to bedtime in the a.m. hours. But when I awoke, I was consistently reminded, and truly felt, that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me - even without sleep.
Graces were overflowing.
One evening, I encountered our seminarians huddling a distance from our “home” during the trip, very late at night, practicing the World Youth Day theme song - in Polish - in order to perform it later for the diocesan teens. Their sacrifice of time and sleep, and the fact that they cared enough to learn the song, made an impression on me.
Another day, when we visited Auschwitz, I overheard from a distance one of the most stunning stories from a father-daughter pair descended from Jewish Holocaust survivors (The Washington Post later picked up the story).
Yet still, I cannot count the times I was completely lost and alone among a crowd of nearly 2 million at Błonia Park (admittedly, my own fault. I was a “floater” from group to group) and I was “found,” like in the song “Amazing Grace,” every time.
Contrast this peace, this serenity, with the murky, awful feelings I was having post-vigil, running on three hours of sleep, and you have an idea of why "feelings" didn't matter at all. It was precisely because of the sufferings our bodies endured that we could appreciate rest - in Christ alone. It was inevitably due to the pandemonium of traveling anywhere with 2 million others that made it possible to embrace Christ's gift of ever-present, pure silence.