MRBlog | Symbols of Unity: Material Multiculturalism at World Youth Day

Weltjugendtag 2016 im Bistum Bielsko Żywiec

By Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba

Between July 26th and 31st, 2016 an estimated 3 million pilgrims descended on Krakow, Poland to participate in World Youth Day (WYD). WYD is an international event organized by the Catholic Church so that young people can “experience in first person the universality of the Church.” Occurring every 2-3 years since 1984, the 2016 celebration of the pilgrimage marks the second time the event has taken place in Poland. The birthplace of the late Pope John Paul II, the founder of the global event, Poland is a nation known for its strong relationship to Catholicism. During the week-long pilgrimage, individuals from around the world gathered at various locations in and around Krakow to celebrate the theme of mercy by participating in mass with Pope Francis as well as other events including a prayer vigil, the Stations of the Cross, and catechesis. As WYD occurred, press from around the world provided coverage of the Pope as he visited Auschwitz in silence and commented on the “carnival atmosphere” at the final mass.

But as the World Youth Day participants return to their home countries and their daily lives, they will return with more than just memories. From flags to Frisbees to silicone wristbands, many will be returning home with suitcases full of mementos from their fellow pilgrims.

WYD TradeAt the core of World Youth Day is the concept of the multicultural nature of global Catholicism. In practice, the event involves encounters with people from other countries. For many pilgrims, an important semi-official component of the event is the exchange of material mementos from one’s homeland for those from the people they encounter. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “One way of celebrating cultural exchange is by trading items with others. This is especially fun if you bring or make items to trade such as prayer cards, crosses, buttons, stickers, decorated clothespins, bandanas, hats, shirts, and so forth.” And celebrate they do.

During some of the WYD 2016 events, I was with a group of pilgrims from Texas who were kind enough to share their thoughts about the purpose and meaning of trading material objects, many of which most onlookers would deem secular or nationalistic in nature. For one person, the appeal to trading with people from around the world was the idea of “taking a secular object from a sovereign country to represent being part of a (global) religion.” For another, the objects themselves were “symbols of unity” to demonstrate that, although they were from different countries, “we’re all here in peace.”  In short, participants view the process of cultural exchange among pilgrims as the physical manifestation of the multicultural message of this Catholic event.

In order to emphasize the theme of Mercy, World Youth Day 2016 highlighted the contributions of Saints Pope John Paul II and Faustina; both Poles are now known as the Apostles of Divine Mercy. The lives of these saints were intended to be exemplary in the context of the larger WYD celebration, but given the emphasis on materialism that permeates Catholic practice, it is no surprise to see that the WYD pilgrimage included opportunities to worship at locations containing relics from these two saints. Participants who worshiped at the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Kraków-Łagiewniki did so at the tomb of St. Faustina, while those who went to the Basilica at Czestochowa found a relic featuring the blood of Pope John Paul II from the attempt on his life in 1981 next to the revered image of the “Queen of Poland.” Even within the context of the global youth rally, the material focus of Catholic practice so often seen in conjunction with devotion to saints was on display. At World Youth Day, the narratives of the lives of these Polish saints reinforced the concept of unity despite nationalism, which was accomplished by highlighting the significance of their lives within the story of global Catholicism.

Most media coverage of World Youth Day 2016 centered on Pope Francis’ comments and actions as well as the official events related to the pilgrimage. However, the physical experiences of millions of pilgrims who participated goes largely unnoticed. During this celebration, Catholics from around the world walked, slept, ate, and worshiped together in close spaces. In these moments, despite language barriers, mementos were exchanged, providing, as one pilgrim shared with me, “a way to remember the person from the other country” despite only meeting for a few brief moments. The goal of the Catholic Church during WYD is for pilgrims to celebrate the idea that they are members of a global Church, an identity that supersedes nationality. For pilgrims, this message may be remembered by wearing, using, or preserving the mementos they received from others.  Two days after returning, a small Polish flag, traded for a Texan cowboy bandana, now sits in my room, a token of my own journey as an observer of this pilgrimage to remember the nation that hosted the event.


Image via Wikimedia