Cardinals, Catholics, and Frank Sinatra? Finding Truth in Unfamiliar Spaces

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

The opening verse to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” echoed throughout Tauron Arena Kraków, familiar words to the several thousand young Americans gathered for the day’s catechesis session. Every World Youth Day pilgrim immediately leaned forward in his or her seat.

The singer? Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila. His friendly smile projected onto the giant screens, Cardinal Tagle spoke of this famous song and its connection to the “culture of success” in our society.

“We always convince ourselves [that] you can be what you want to be. And do it by yourself. If you allow others to help you, to guide you, you do not qualify as successful.”

His idea of a “self-made human being” is not uncommon, especially in a world where the individual is key to a productive workforce, family, etc. Children, especially girls, are taught in many settings to become the archetype of these “strong, independent” leaders—people who generate their self-worth from success and frown upon failure. I, too, often thrive on perfectionism, this idea that every decision I make must be planned, calculated, and implemented to help my pursuits.

Cardinal Tagle’s words from last summer came at a point of reflection this evening after a long and emotionally draining week. I always reverted to my daily routine by each day’s end: cooking dinner, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, and so on. These chores provide the sense of independence I need as a college student home for the summer. But adulthood is more than washing a plate or broiling fish. It’s more than valuing both successes and mistakes because I claim them as my own. It’s about recognizing the spiritual influences in my life and thanking those who shaped me into the person I am today.

Similarly, Sinatra’s lyrics are more than just part of a catchy song. Sure, they emphasize a healthy dose of control over our lives. But independence can be too much of a good thing if it stops us from recognizing the hand there all along.

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Ten Days in Kraków: Part Three

Twenty-four hours later, I found myself in a crowded hospital room. Flies escaped from the open windows as music trickled in from the main road. They provided two blankets and little else. Before coming to see me, the doctors asked, “American?” And gave each other knowing glances.

I left the next day with the diagnosis of heatstroke, a splitting headache and without a pair of shoes.

Under strict orders to rest, I insisted on going for a walk in the country. My eyes taking a few moments to become adjusted to the glaring sun, I stumbled into the middle of the day. Chickens roamed across the road as we walked single-file down the concrete path. A menacing German Shepherd barked from behind a wooden fence—and an elderly woman several hundred yards away replied fiercely. Speed limits were ignored as drivers would palm the wheel and read from the sports section of the newspaper. Children rode their bicycles without fear—there was no need for helmets. Without a schedule, a constant need to plan every event in their life, they introduced to us the idea of living with greater freedom.

On our final morning in Poland, we stepped into the fog to board our bus, robotically munching on bananas during the drive. The landscape shifted to the industrial buildings of Warsaw once again, only this time there was no droning by a frazzled tour guide— and we were very much awake. The driver, both hands gripping the wheel, stared straight ahead. We had interrupted their leisurely pace of life with World Youth Day. They were tired of us. But we were not tired of them.

One year later, I turn on the news in the United States to witness whatever occurred that day: a shooting, workers’ strike, street riots and so on. But if I close my eyes, I see a stone-faced Polish soldier in fatigues eagerly accepting an American flag while exclaiming, “I love your country!” I watch as a group of international students chant, “USA! USA!” as we board our train. What is it about our nation that I am not seeing? The only answer I can provide is this: sometimes I must leave to appreciate what is waiting at home.

 

Ten Days in Kraków: Part Two

While others followed the crowds, we would duck into convenience stores to sample Polish candy or stop at food stalls to try grilled cheese and cranberries. Rather than use meal tickets during our first full night in the country, we bravely downed glasses of beet juice at a fancy restaurant, the taste lingering for hours. The second-oldest church in the nation was discovered a half-mile from our hotel on the third day, its crumbling doors revealing the carefully preserved interior of a building still filled to capacity every weekend.

The days melted into one another until Saturday arrived. We woke before dawn, trying in vain to rub the sleep from our eyes while hurriedly stuffing supplies into our packs: a sleeping bag, flashlight, scarf, water bottles. We began our journey as the sun rose, our steps illuminated by the purple shadows of the sky. The cobblestones beneath our feet became paved roads as we continued the nine-mile trek to Campus Misericordiae, the Field of Mercy. Packed tightly together like sardines, the pilgrims marched on. Lunch was slightly smashed apples and sandwiches eaten in a cornfield, the grasshoppers settling themselves on the blades of grass before leaping onto a girl’s food.

After hours of walking, we neared the end. The dots in the distance morphed into cottages with thatched roofs and curious villagers peering outside at the frenzy of activity in the streets. The feeling of celebration was contagious; children ran to the gates to proudly wave Polish flags. An elderly man, garden hose in hand, balanced on top of a brick wall to send showers into the crowd. His efforts were met with a chorus of cheers.

Stars began to explode in my vision. Approaching the field, my legs turned to lead. Within a matter of minutes, my face met the cool grass. I became unaware of the ensuing panic. One hour passed. Then, two. I found myself in a stationary ambulance as a medic made disapproving noises. “She must go back,” he said with a heavy accent. It was decided, then. I would walk the four miles to flag a taxi. Mouth set in a firm line, the chaperone scanned the area for another option.

She turned on her heel and marched over to a soldier. Twirling the gun between his fingers, he silenced her words with a curt nod. We would continue. As we ventured down the streets, the police cars and machine guns painted a strange picture with the crowds of young people dragging carts of boxed dinners back to the field. Hours passed before we made it back to the hotel. Our taxi driver, his eyebrows knit with confusion, cursed when he discovered we were driving in the wrong direction. Upon returning to the hotel, my roommate was given stern instructions to keep a watchful eye on me.

Problem was, she’s a deep sleeper.

Ten Days in Kraków: Part One

The first post on my time in Poland during the summer of 2016.

Police cars, lights still flashing, lay abandoned by the side of the road. Mountains of trash—water bottles, torn backpacks, ripped sneakers—lined the streets as members of the national army stood solemnly at attention, cradling machine guns in their gloved hands. Reminiscent of a riot scene, the swarms of young people, every group proudly waving their country’s flag high above their heads, created a happy chaos stating this moment was anything but.

The beginning of World Youth Day, a religious pilgrimage uniting myself and millions of other Catholics, was spent with a harried tour guide who droned on about the historical implications of the war on Poland as our eyes slowly closed. The driver, one hand perched on the wheel, shouted into a flip phone as the bus, the only vehicle on the highway, veered from left-to-right. Warsaw, with its stark industrial buildings, dozens of car dealerships and strangely ornate McDonald’s dotting the countryside every few miles, became the overwhelming beauty of Kraków, a city left virtually untouched by the bombings during the war.

The first few days were a jet-lagged blur of midnight dinners in a renovated cobblestone barn and late breakfasts in a courtyard with the peculiar statue of a bell-shaped man standing proudly in the center. I heard stories of these artistic pieces from my grandmother, a first-generation Polish American, and was immediately drawn to the idea of visiting her former home. This nation was unlike anything I had ever experienced—and I loved it for that.

A rhythm was slowly created in Kraków. We would take our time eating breakfast before traveling to the center of the city to grab pastries at a coffee shop. The locals on the tram eyed us with suspicion. With our bright red government-issued backpacks and teal bandannas, we stuck out as obvious foreigners. Women were eager to begin a conversation. They told us in broken English how they housed Americans in their homes during the last pilgrimage. The men would simply nod in our direction, taking long drags of their cigarettes while staring at the blur of colors beyond the windows.

Our days were scheduled and calculated: a morning catechesis session in the 15,000-seat Tauron Arena Kraków, then a quick train ride to use our meal tickets in the square before traveling several miles to Błonia Park to attend Mass with 700,000 other pilgrims.

But our group was never the type to stick to schedules.