City of Saints, Camp of Sinners

As I sit in my cozy, quiet apartment, I find it difficult to believe that a mere two weeks ago I was outside, on a tarp with close friends and surrounded by around 2 million unknown brothers and sisters. Here, I have all material possessions. There, I had a tiny backpack with the absolute bare necessities. Here I am in a huge bustling city. There I was in an open field so vast and congested I could not dream of seeing the end of it. Here I’m in the nation’s most diverse archdiocese, and there I was surrounded by flags and people from the universal Church represented by 187 countries.

The stark contrast between my pilgrimage in Poland to World Youth Day and my ordinary life is readily apparent. Not as easily apparent are the similarities – the patterns of life that repeat and extend and blossom brilliantly no matter the physical place. I am no less a pilgrim now than I was two weeks ago. If anything, the reality of my pilgrim status has only been made super-real. My week in Poland was a microcosm of the true pilgrimage of this life to the Divine Life with the Trinity. There were moments of surreal joy and boundless hope that were bordered by aching bones and a heavy heart. My companions gave me strength and courage to continue, and there were also moments when I wanted nothing more than to be alone. I experienced profound openness to the Holy Spirit working in me, and I also resisted His presence. There were conversations that revealed ever more the beauty of the human person, and I walked through places where the ugly reality of sin were most cruelly exposed. I have seldom smiled so much or allowed my tears to flow as freely as I did during this week. These are the things  that weave together that create the pattern of this life of ascent. I experienced them acutely and in rapid succession in Poland, but we all experience them over time in the daily life or looking out to the grand scheme of things.

I could lay out our itinerary and describe each day in all its wonders and joys and sorrows. I could, and perhaps that’s what some of you expect and want from this post. But I’m not writing that. Not today. Rather, I want to take some time to reflect on those whom I was privileged to encounter.

Poland, and Krakow in particular, boasts a plethora of saints. In the months and weeks before I left for Poland, I brushed up on my saint-knowledge. I read all about St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Faustina. I took Bl. Pier Giorgio’s words to heart and immersed myself in the feast of St. Mary Magdalene by dwelling on the Gospel of St. John’s words on her. But no amount of reading could prepare me for truly encountering these people, these saints, in Poland. Though I’ve known their stories and their deeds for some time now and though I was plenty excited to walk their walks and venerate their relics, I was not ready to encounter them.

Thursday, we began the day by venerating the relics of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, the “Man of the Beatitutes.” Friday, we began the day venerating the relics of St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Mary Magdalene. In the presence of their relics, I finally had some time to take a breath after a long week of running hither and thither to different sites. These were not men and women who were perfectly pious in every way or who never resisted God’s will in their life. These were men and women who simply became who they were meant to be, who they were made to be. In triumph and in failure, they strove towards Christ. By reflecting on their lives, something truly extraordinary happened in my heart: I realized the depth of my very own calling to sainthood. It’s something I think about relatively often, and yet, not nearly deeply enough. And I am not afraid to proclaim from the rooftops or into the blogosphere: I want to be a saint! To be a saint is not to be a doe-eyed painting or sober-looking statue somewhere of an individual who dumbly gave their life to an unseen God. No, to be a saint means to truly offer oneself, body and soul, to Christ. It is in this offering that man becomes fully alive, becomes fully himself. I want to be Kenzie, fully alive, fully the woman I was created to be.

I am encouraged to be who I am by those who came before me – by the saints whom we celebrate and remember. And I am encouraged so deeply by those who were present to me at World Youth Day. I saw millions of young people alive in their faith – lit up by joy and hope. I witnessed the transfiguration of my friends’ and companions’ hearts as we journeyed in that foreign land. Today’s second reading from Hebrews 12 encapsulates the importance of our brothers and sisters, both those in Heaven and on Earth:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

I went to the City of Saints, and the Camp of Sinners. The camp grounds where we gathered to celebrate World Youth Day was called Campus Misercordiae, The Camp of Mercy. In the camp of mercy, I encountered fellow pilgrims from all over the world. Our sins divide us, but our common call to sainthood in pursuing the way of Christ unites us. In the camp of mercy, the sinners were called to be saints by our shepherd here on earth, Pope Francis. He exhorted us during the Vigil on Saturday night,

Today Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, is calling you to leave your mark on history. He, who is life, is asking each of you to leave a mark that brings life to your own history and that of many others. He, who is truth, is asking you to abandon the paths of rejection, division and emptiness. Are you up to this? What answer will you give, with your hands and with your feet, to the Lord, who is the way, the truth and the life?

Jesus Christ is calling us to be who were made to be for the greater good of the Church and the world. In today’s gospel he says exasperatedly, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49) This is an emphatic call to rise to the occasion of our lives. We have been given what we need to change the world by the witness of our lives just as those saints who came before us were given what they needed.

I pray that I have the perseverance and courage to be Kenzie, a woman fully alive for Christ. Please pray for me to become who I am meant to be. Know that I am praying for you!

May God bless you on your way!

St. Maximilian Kolbe, on this your feast day please pray for us!

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