By Benj Emrich:
This summer Marymount University’s Campus Ministry organized a pilgrimage to Poland. I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the trip. On this pilgrimage we were able to follow in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe among other saints. Throughout this trip we were able to visit many important places of the culture of Poland as well as explore its Catholic identity. After a very long flight over the Atlantic from Dulles and a layover in Frankfurt, Germany I arrived in Poland very eager to experience all that it had to offer for my faith.
After arriving in Poland we immediately began to tour the city of Warsaw. We traversed its streets in the official bus of the Polish National Soccer Team, and saw many important landmarks and buildings such as the Polish embassies. Arriving at the Shrine of our Lady of Czestochowa, or the “Queen of Poland,” we were able to view the Black Madonna, a beautiful Icon of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus. We celebrated Mass there in a side chapel, spent some time in prayer, and then got settled into our hotel.
The next day we continued to explore the Shrine of our Lady of Czestochowa where we received a tour of the beautiful shrine, had Mass in the chapel of the Black Madonna, and had much more time for personal prayer. This is where the devotion Poland has for the Blessed Mother moved me the most! Afterwards we drove to Krakow where we had a brief tour and got settled in our hotel.
On the fourth day of the pilgrimage we drove to Wadowice, visiting the birthplace and home parish of John Paul II and had Mass inside. We then proceeded to a monastery / retreat center in Kalwaria where we toured the grounds and had a lot of time for personal prayer. Kalwaria was high up in the mountains, which made it a beautiful place to be.
The fifth day was a very moving day. We spent time touring the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was eye-opening for me to see firsthand this place about which I had heard so many terrible things. We walked around the grounds, saw the living (or dying) conditions, and even walked through the gas chambers. On our tour we passed by the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. This was a very moving experience because he is a true model of Christian courage.
On day six we traveled into the mountains to Zakopane; this was definitely the most beautiful and breathtaking place we visited in Poland. We started the day with Mass in a local chapel and then spent the remainder of the day touring Zakopane and its local markets. We also traveled by funicular railway to the top of one of the mountains where we could see a beautiful, albeit foggy, view of the town and its many mountains.
Day seven was spent at two neighboring locations. The first was the brand new Shrine of Spirituality dedicated to John Paul II and the second was the Shrine of Divine Mercy where St. Faustina lived. This was a day filled with prayer. We had Mass in St. Faustina chapel within the Shrine of Divine Mercy, we toured the monastery grounds as well as those at the Shrine of Spirituality, and then we had free time to explore, pray, and visit many religious shops.
On the eighth day we drove to Wieliczka where we toured the oldest salt mine in Poland. This salt mine is a beautiful piece of art. We celebrated Mass in the St. Kinga chapel, which was within the mine. All the artwork, the altar, ambo, presider’s, chair, etc., were carved entirely from the salt. The rest of the day was spent touring downtown Krakow. We visited and toured the Gothic Royal Castle as well as Collegium’s Mauis. After this we had dinner in a local restaurant where we experienced more traditional Polish food as well as music and dancing.
For our last day before our departure we traveled to Niepokolanow, a beautiful shrine dedicated to and designed by St. Maximilian Kolbe. Here we spent the day in prayer, celebrating Mass in a chapel that was built when the Franciscan mission was first established in that area. After this, we had another dinner of ethnic polish cuisine, we toured more of Warsaw, and then prepared for our departure the next day.
The 10th and final day of the trip was a sad day because we were saying good-bye to this place we had come to love. While our group was leaving Poland and all of its spiritual wonders, the things we learned there and how we grew in our own faith will stay with us. Personally, Poland delivered to me many spiritual gifts that helped me to grow in my understanding of the saints and devotion to the Virgin Mary. I can definitely speak for everyone who went on the trip in that we all grew greatly from the experience of traveling to this beautiful and faithful land of Poland.