Written by Katie VanLeeuwen
Entering any new situation comes with a certain amount of anxiety for most people. Picture yourself as a young person walking into a crowded cafeteria. The first thing you do is look around to see if there is anyone you know, right? If there are no familiar faces then you pick a random spot to sit. Next you generally go through some awkward introductions, and some safe superficial small talk. When I applied to go to World Youth Day as a missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach, my initial thought was that it would be similar to the cafeteria experience, except this “cafeteria” would have hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.
Over the past couple of days, while going through orientation with my mission team mates, I’ve realized that this is not necessarily the case. A couple of days ago we were strangers, but now we are already very well connected. Right from the start we all knew that we wanted to get to know each other. At meals we would always be sitting with different people and I’ve really appreciated that acceptance from everyone.
One day at breakfast I found myself sitting in front of someone I hadn’t met yet. There were a few moments of silence while I was tempted just to focus on my meal or to listen to another conversation since I thought that maybe she hadn’t said anything yet because she didn’t want to talk. Finally I made up my mind to say something, and that’s all it took. By the time our conversation ended we had talked about the big life decisions we were discerning, the things we were nervous about or struggled with as missionaries, and the points in some of the talks that had touched us so far. It was so refreshing to be completely open and vulnerable with someone. In those moments before we spoke I was wondering what she thought of me, but those thoughts left as soon as we began sharing. I have discovered a new level of forming connections. A bit of small talk covering the weather, our sleep, and the food selection would definitely not have had the same effect.
Shared experience is a powerful connector. As missionaries, we share the background of our faith and evangelization goals. We also have all gone through the difficult process of figuring out what to pack. Who knew that it could take so much time and consideration just to put a few things in a bag! Sharing these connection points has allowed us to skip some of the small talk stages and go deeper right away.
When people ask me what I’m looking forward to most at World Youth Day, I’d have to say it would be those unexpected moments of connection and discovery, when you can feel the Holy Spirit leading a conversation. If there was ever an environment that could promote going deeper in conversations with strangers it would be at World Youth Day! The event itself brings us together geographically to a place where we can encounter each other, but I think it is sharing in such an intense experience that will bring us together spiritually to a mindset where we can have those deeper conversations. My hope is that the Holy Spirit will be able to work through these encounters between pilgrims. It would be amazing to help someone form a more personal relationship with Jesus.
Usually after a retreat or some type of powerful experience we tend to feel the spiritual high drop off as we go back to “normal” life. However, Fr. Raymond de Souza presents another way of thinking when he says that a pilgrimage experience is actually a greater sense of what life is supposed to be since it is closer to what we will experience in heaven. I’m hoping that after World Youth Day, we will be able to continue going deeper in conversations and skipping all of that “cafeteria talk”.
God created us for relationships with Him and with others, so I’m excited to see how He plans to use the common experience of World Youth Day to draw His universal church together in Krakow and beyond.
Katie VanLeeuwen is a 20 year old missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach. She is a Prince Edward Islander with a love for lupins, red dirt roads, and beaches. She is currently studying biology and psychology, but in her spare time she also enjoys gardening and being creative in the kitchen.
Follow her on Instagram!
Photos: Katie VanLeeuwen