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The experience of walking down the streets of Krakow, Poland alongside 2 million other teens and young adults from 186 different countries like France, Italy, Australia, the Philippines, Syria, Egypt, Spain, etc. was amazing. We had made the long journey to Poland filled with unexpected adventures in order to be with this representation of the universal church and grow in faith together. It was unlike anything else you could have ever experienced. We woke up each morning and embarked on the many adventures and graces that awaited us. There was singing and chanting everywhere we went and it was impossible not to join in. We experienced Mass throughout the week in the Tauron Arena where our catechesis sessions also were. The Sisters of Life were everywhere in the Arena, hanging out with us and talking with us. So many young religious sisters, brothers, and priests were present at World Youth Day, which was really inspiring. There were a number of Bishops and Cardinals who we met throughout the week all encouraging us to remain prayerful and focused on our relationship with God while also living the lives we were called to live by God.

It was extraordinary to go to Mass with 20,000 people during the week and end with a Mass of 2.1 million with Pope Francis on Sunday. We walked about 10 miles to go to the campsite for Mass with Pope Francis and upon arriving to the site, after a couple of our group members waited a few hours for food, we found out that they had run out. So, we enjoyed the vigil and then heard there would be food available afterwards. There was some confusion with the location of the food, so after four hours of walking, two of us returned with food for the group. We were determined to find food for the group because we knew we had a 10 mile walk back the next day and needed sustenance for the journey.

We finished our trip visiting Wadowice, the childhood town of St. John Paul II, and Auschwitz and Birkenau. These were powerful experiences for all of us. It was eerie walking through Auschwitz and Birkenau. There was such a silence and somberness that you could feel it as you walked around. We saw where St. Maximilian Kolbe died and where so many others were innocently taken as well. We didn’t just learn about the darkness and destruction experienced here in Poland in the 20th century, we saw it and felt it. It was unlike anything we’ve ever felt before. At the same time, we were able to feel the joy and peace that comes from the Lord in the midst of death and destruction. It reminded us of Jesus and His suffering on the cross. In His suffering, He brought to us eternal life. We were provided with the opportunities all week at World Youth Day to offer up our little sufferings and be reminded during this year of Mercy how redemptive our suffering is. So many beautiful saints came from Poland to remind us of this and St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Faustina were just a few who we met and encountered here during this week. We are so grateful for the opportunity to have traveled to Poland to represent St. John’s and to understand more about the sufferings of our universal church family while also growing in faith and community together. St. John Paul II, pray for us.

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Jeremiah Joseph — El Salvador Witness

I’ve been a regular parishioner at St. John’s for about 12 years now. I’ll admit, however, even having altar served for several years, I have not been too involved in church activities. The way I found out about El Salvador was actually through my math teacher, Thomas Burke, who is also a member of St. John’s. Halfway through my semester with Mr. Burke, he approached me and proposed the idea about going on a mission trip to a poverty-stricken country. I was thrilled. I have always wanted to aid the less fortunate on a grander scale and the opportunity nally arose. Mr. Burke explained to me that I would be going with a group from St. John’s and that we would be building houses. Awesome, I thought! But honestly, I knew nothing of El Salvador or building houses and I did not know what to expect.

July finally came around and the trip date neared. On the day of departure, a group of eight other parishioners and I took a flight from Philadelphia to El Salvador with a layover in Houston. See, I had a preconceived notion that the Central American country was infested with mosquitoes given its heat, but boy was I wrong! The next time I saw a single mosquito was in the airport in Philadelphia on our return. At the volunteer house where we stayed, our group merged with a smaller group of five with members originating from Maryland and Missouri.

On our first day in this foreign country, the group went hiking. Personally, I found it to be a very scary experience, yet everyone seemed so calm. We hiked up this gigantic rocky mountain with barely any railing and I swear if I tripped, I’d have died because I would have fallen directly off the terrain. But once you reached the top of the mountain, nothing could compare to the view I could see of the entire city of the nation’s capital, San Salvador.

When you are Catholic, you know the meaning of going to Mass, and that it holds no tongue barrier. So when we went to Mass on Sunday and it was entirely in Spanish, I understood every part of it. Churches in El Salvador are gorgeous, every one of them seem to be designed differently — artistically and architecturally. Also, the people in El Salvador are not like Americans, they actually go to Mass, not only on holidays, but every Sunday. There is a church practically on every corner with multiple Masses that happen throughout the day and each Mass is always filled.

The rest of the week was spent going to the work site where the work was divided. I mastered the art of macheteing four-foot grass and was able to chop down an entire field by the end of the week. The field required an even ground to allow for the construction of future homes. Other people dug trenches and helped pound and compound the ground with dirt all in preparation for construction. Through my cutting, I encountered a ten-inch-long two-headed worm. After taunting the villagers with it of course, the sight of the foreign beast became the highlight of everyone’s day. The work site was one of the main places I was exposed to the poverty in the country. There was trash everywhere and starving stray animals took shelter anywhere they could. Many homes in the village had a bathtub filled with dirty water and that water was the only dirty water they had for a time. That water was used for cooking, cleaning, showering, etc. Americans always say, “Don’t waste water” but never did I think I would see with my own eyes the full extent of that phrase.

Going on a mission trip is more than just volunteering to help another country, it is a life-changing experience every time you go. Hearing about poverty cannot compare to seeing it for yourself. One day, the group went to an orphanage. Literally, we went just to play and interact with the children. No words can describe how lfiled with joy the kids were just to have someone to talk to. Again, the language barrier wasn’t an issue. When you smiled, they would smile back. When you waved, they would wave back. When you put on Taylor Swift, they would dance. Now I wouldn’t advise playing soccer with the older kids unless you’re prepared for defeat, God they were talented!

We learned culture. We learned about the terrifying El Salvadorian War that took place all throughout the ’80s. We visited the tomb of Oscar Romero, a patron saint to all in the country and who is in the process of becoming a saint. We went shopping at market places where negotiating and bargaining was the key.

Overall, this was an experience that I felt I needed to go on and I absolutely loved every minute of it. I highly recommend to anyone who is even remotely interested in going TO GO! The experience is life-altering and you will regret not going. I am definitely going again next year!