Embarking on a Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Saints

*(This is the longer original version of my Eastern Europe Pilgrimage Sharing in Catholic News)*

21-year-old Singaporean Catholic Darren Chan shares his faith journey in Eastern Europe, the inspirational stories of saints and leading a more prayerful life.

Recently, Pope John Paul II was canonised a saint by Pope Francis and this milestone was witnessed by many Catholics on April 27, 2014. After the canonisation of Pope John Paul II as a saint, places that the Pope visited and his birthplace in Krakow, Poland has witnessed huge numbers of pilgrims who want to journey with the beloved Pope to experience his life from childhood until his time as a Catholic Pope.

From June 10 to 22, I journeyed with 31 Catholics from the Church of the Risen Christ and various parishes in a pilgrimage named “Pilgrims of Joy” to discover God’s presence in the places that influenced Karol Wojtyla in becoming a much respected Pope. Waldowice, a town in Krakow, Poland is the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.

I had the opportunity to visit the church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary where a big banner of Pope John Paul II was draped at the front of the church and the picturesque town square had miniature statues of the Pope in prayer. Pope John Paul II was baptised, confirmed, served as an altar boy and found his calling to be a priest in the church. Mass had commenced when I went into the church and there were many Catholics partaking in the celebration. There is a special section dedicated to the Pope and here Catholics spend time praying to the recently canonised saint and they light a candle in remembrance of his contributions to the church. As a Catholic,it made me realise that just like the saints, we can emulate their actions to impact the lives of people.

Fernandez Petrosia, a pilgrim from the Church of the Risen Christ said, “Pope John Paul II is a saint and fatherly figure of my era, I am able to relate and appreciate the things he had done for the Catholic youth. Also I am blessed to have been able to attend the mass in the year 1986 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.”

After visiting the church, I went to the Salt Mines of Wieliczka, Krakow where beneath the mines is a small salt chapel with Pope John Paul II’s salt statue. The mines are listed under the UNESCO’s heritage list and the depth of the mines range from 64 to 327meters. Taking the cramped miner’s lift and traversing through the chilly salt tunnels due to the ventilation system was a surreal experience. It gives a perspective of the miners’ harsh working conditions of extracting the salt and it gives us a glimpse of their strong Catholic faith.

The Catholic miners were devout Christians and would pray and sing hymns when they worked; one of their pulley ropesystems is shaped like rosary beads. The salt mines contain three chapels which are  St Anthony’s Chapel,  dedicated to him as he was the patron saint of miners, the Holy Cross Chapel and St Kinga’s Chapel. Out of the three chapels, St Kinga’s Chapel is the most impressive chapel with its length spanning 54 meters long; and it is home to impressive salt chandeliers suspended from the high ceilings and the salt statues of St John Paul II and St Kinga. There are many other religious salt carvings in the walls of the chapel depicting major events in the bible such as “Twelve year old Jesus preaching in the Temple”, “The Last Supper” and “The Miracle at Cana in Galilee”. These grey salt carvings were done by professional miner sculptors and stand as a testimony to the beauty and symbolic meaning of the Catholic faith.

Pawel Zarebski, a former miner and a Catholic tour guide said, “On Sundays, mass is celebrated at St Kinga Chapel at 7.30am. The chapel can accommodate up to 400 people and admission to the mine is free for this period of time.” Pope John Paul II canonised St Kinga on June 16, 1999 due to her commitment in helping lepers and the poor in Poland through her wealth as a princess. In 2005, the salt statue of Pope John Paul II was completed and served as a symbol of the Pope’s influence to the catholic miners and his visit to the mines. It dawned on me that even though the miners faced potential dangers of fire when excavating the salt, they still kept God close to their hearts through prayers and the biblical salt carvings served as a reflection of our Catholic identity. Currently, the remaining miners continue their family tradition of doing safety checks on the excavated chambers.

Also, I visited the Wawel Hill Cathedral and Divine Mercy Sanctuary situated in Krakow. 40% of the people in Krakow are church goers which is the highest in Europe according to the local guide. Wawel Hill Cathedral is 400 years old and is the church where Pope John II was ordained as a priest on November 1, 1946 which is All Saints Day. He said his first mass on November 2, 1946 at the crypts below the cathedral where the royalty and national heroes of Poland were buried. At the altar of the cathedral is the gothic miraculous cross of Jesus that Queen Jadwiga prayed to daily and Pope John Paul II canonised her as St Jadwiga on June 8, 1997. Father Kamil who is assistant parish priest at the Church of Risen Christ led the group in personal intercessory prayers at the Chapel of Pope John Paul II in the cathedral.

The Divine Mercy Sanctuaryis an iconic place of Pope John Paul II where he canonised Sister Faustina as a Saint on April 13, 2000. There is a statue of Pope John Paul II at the observation tower at the front of the church. Father Kamil conducted a private mass at the chapel of Sister Faustina where her relics are contained and the church also houses her remains. Jeanette Kong, a pilgrim from The Church of the Risen Christ said, “I feel that by praying at the church of the Divine Mercy, it has showed me the mercy of God in times of hardship as I have great devotion to Saint Faustina prior to the pilgrimage.” Natalie Agus, a young adult pilgrim from The Church of the Risen Christ said, “I have a better understanding of the Divine Mercy and learned to be more sincere in my prayers and the rosary. It also helps to strengthen my faith as a Catholic by praying more.” I feel that praying can connect us with God and that it should play an integral part in our lives.

As pilgrims we made our way across many cities around Eastern Europe and from my observations, many Catholics in the congregation are adults and children. There are few Catholic youths and teenagers in many churches that I visited. Sadly, many young Catholics in Eastern Europe have strayed away from the Catholic Church. Ida Horvat, a Catholic tour guide in Zagreb said, “There are older generations of Catholics in churches as the young people felt forced to go to church by their parents and they eventually stopped going. Their Catholic friends do not go to church also.” Denisa Haarova, a Catholic tour guide in Budapest said, “The people are not practising Catholics as to them it is just a status stated on their birth certificates and they do not attend church.” Another reason she cited was that due to communism rule previously, people turned away from religion but this is slowly changing. I also observed that the Feast of Corpus Christi procession in Wroclaw, Poland, commemorates the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camp I, Poland, was a painful and sad experience as many people were killed by starvation, through being overworked and then being exterminated by  gas chambers. Women and children were sent to gas chambers to be killed as they could not work in the camp. Many Jews suffered in the hands of the Nazi holocaust regime and innocent lives were lost. St Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonised by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982, was made a prisoner in the concentration camp as he offered to take the place of another prisoner. When he was prisoner, he conducted secret masses with the other prisoners, sang hymns with them and made rosaries by using bread as beads to testify to the Catholic faith. He prayed for his enemies. Pope John Paul II placed a memorial candle in St Maximilian Kolbe’s cell as a remembrance of the saint’s courage and loyalty to God. Especkerman Vincent Clement, a pilgrim from the Church of the Risen Christ said, “I feel that God has a way in manifesting his mercy to his people and repentance is necessary to change our ways.” Through this experience, I can trust God in times of trials and sufferings and  know that He is ever present in times of great need.

Also, Pope John Paul II had a great devotion to the image of Our Lady of Jasna Gora at Czestochowa or Black Madonna and prayed before it during his four visits to the sanctuary. The Black Madonna painting was painted by St Luke, the Evangelist. There were many young people at the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna praying and the nuns also prayed with the congregation during mass. The Sanctuary houses the original Black Madonna adorned with precious stones at the altar and other religious relics. The painting has four diagonal slashes on the right cheek of the Black Madonna made by a sharp tool and two longer slashes on the face and neck. There are many legends surrounding the slashes in the painting. The Black Madonna has attracted many pilgrims due to the reported miraculous healings of pilgrims when they prayed before the icon. The painting also became darker in colour due to centuries of soot accumulation of candles burning in front of the painting. There are many different variations of the Jasna Gora and artistic paintings of Pope John Paul II around the Church grounds.

Father Simon Stefanowisz, a priest from the Sanctuary and our guide said, “It is important to pray for Poland as it undergoes changes in the areas of abortion and euthanasia and to pray for peace in the country.” I visited St Vitus Cathedral and Church of the Holy Infant Jesus in Prague where mass is held daily at these churches. Father Kamil held a private mass at the Church of the Holy Infant Jesus and it was heartening to see Catholics from the area joining in the celebration. The Order of Discalced Carmelite Brothers also requested that the pilgrims write their intentions so that they can pray for the pilgrims.

I went to an outdoor international mass at St James Church in Medjugorje where park benches were used as seats and the evening mass was longer than usual with the recitation of the rosary, mass, adoration and praise and worship. It was my first experience attending an outdoor mass which many older Catholics attended, and again, I did not see many young Catholics.

Another interesting place I visited was the Cenacola Catholic Community in Medjugorje where I was taught that God is always patient in waiting for us to return to him to experience his love and mercy no matter what we have done in life. The community was founded by Mother Elvira, a nun who gave new purpose to reformed drug addicts, Rhett and Anthony who are Catholics. Rhett said, “The community made me rediscover my Catholic faith again and I saw small changes in my prayer life.” Anthony said, “It has made me a new person through forgiveness and trust in people again and to find peace with myself.” The community leads a prayerful life through daily rosaries, sharings and adorations. I noticed that the community has experienced a conversion of their own to be renewed in God’s grace and to find new purpose in life again. Six men in the community have gone on to become priests and found their personal conversion during their stay in Cenacola.

Due to the long journeys from one city to another, praying the divine mercy, having private mass, singing hymns and saying the rosary daily formed a part of the pilgrimage to grow as Catholics. Other interesting places that I visited were the panoramic sights at Plitvice National Park, celebrating Father’s Day Mass at St Matthias Church in Zagreb, St Stephen’s Cathedral in Zagreb, Buda Castle in Zagreb, St Francis Xavier Cathedral in Slovakia, the Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge and Hradcany Castle in Prague. Vernon and Joyce Lim, pilgrims from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor said, “The pilgrimage was an eye-opener and I am happy to be able to pray for my friends for their intentions. We are touched by the goodness of God.” Christy Tang, a pilgrim of the Church of the Risen Christ said, “The most important experience is to see Christ in everyone, helping each other and caring for the older pilgrims.”

The pilgrimage has made me realise that God is always willing to forgive and that through our hardships, he is always there guiding and giving us hope to soldier on. I hope that Catholics who have strayed away from the church will experience God’s love and acceptance eventually. Pope John Paul II was a great communicator, traveller and a spiritual person and all that  reflects his inspirational journey in becoming a saint came through the places we visited.

We would like to thank Father Kamil for being the spiritual director for this pilgrimage.

God Bless!

Written By: Darren Chan Keng Leong

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