Brad Held, SJ
“The crowd was pressing around him.”
~ Luke 5:1
by Brad Held, SJ
This time, the crowd surrounded Pope Francis. And I was in that crowd gathered in Kraków, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016.
The crowds were everywhere. They filled Kraków’s historic streets. They pressed into the city’s buses, trams, and trains. They swarmed the restaurants and food courts. A crowd of more than two million people filled the Field of Mercy to keep vigil and celebrate a final Mass with Pope Francis.
Everywhere Pope Francis was, the crowd was in force. The streets were filled with chants of “Papa Francisco.” The moment the young people caught a glimpse of the Popemobile, they were off and running toward it. Papa Francisco was coming, and they wanted to be as close to him as they could.
Yet before the crowds even began to form in Kraków, I was with a group of roughly 2,000 pilgrims and Jesuits from 52 countries, gathered for MAGIS 2016. MAGIS — the Latin word for “more” or “better,” which Jesuits often invoke to highlight our mission — is the Jesuit spiritual preparation which took place July 15–25, prior to World Youth Day.
We gathered in the city of Lódz to launch into our program, themed “to give and not to count the cost,” a line from St. Ignatius’s Prayer for Generosity. Participants put that theme into action immediately, as they stood in the pouring rain, waiting for their turn to register, all the while laughing and greeting each other. These were days of high energy (how else do you fight off jet lag?), but also quiet contemplation. One moment, we were dancing and singing along to praise and worship music, and shortly after, we were invited to settle into some quiet for a guided meditation on the day’s Gospel. Months later, I still picture the hype and quiet flowing into each other.
I am also left with the image of our final gathering in Czestochowa. We gathered there after seven days of experiments, the heart of the MAGIS program. Much like St. Ignatius prescribed for Jesuit novices, MAGIS 2016 had 97 experiments ranging from art and theater, to sailing and hiking pilgrimages, to service projects and retreats. The experiment groups were a mixture of pilgrims from various countries who lived, worked, and prayed together. This unity made all the difference.
|The US delegation to MAGIS 2016
By the time we gathered in Czestochowa, we no longer simply hung out in our country groups, but instead mixed together with new friends from our experiments. In a very moving way, we were able to pilgrimage together to Jasna Góra Monastery, the shrine to the Black Madonna, where we prayed together at a place so near and dear to the Polish people. Our daily commute showed us another, more somber part of Poland’s history.
Until Poland’s communist government fell in 1989, Polish Jesuits could not operate schools, which is where MAGIS pilgrims usually sleep.
As a result, we stayed quite a distance outside Kraków during World Youth Day. Each morning, we would ride the train into the city and do the reverse in the evening. Our train line’s last stop was Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, a poignant reminder of tremendous suffering others experienced at that very place.
I have thought much about the joys and challenges of MAGIS and World Youth Day since my return home. There was something about the pilgrimage that made the hardships less hard and that linked the hardships to the joys. Every day, we crowded into hot trains, grimly aware of who had been on those trains before us. In spite of this tragic history and our minor discomforts, there was grace. Somehow, these moments were key to the grace of it all.
For more information, visit www.magis2016.org.
Brad Held, SJ, is a Jesuit of the Wisconsin Province. He is studying theology at Boston College. Brad served as US project director for MAGIS 2016. Recently ordained to the diaconate, he will be ordained a priest in 2017.