If I thought that my first few weeks in Austria were a sign of things to come, I was right. These past four weeks have been filled with amazing experiences, amazing places, and amazing people. I could not have asked for anything more. During these past weeks, I visited Salzburg and Munich, hiked six hours to Marietzel (a beautiful Marian shrine in Austria), relaxed on the beaches of the Dalmatian Coast, went to Mass in Medjugorje, and most recently, traveled to Poland.
Salzburg is one of my favorite cities in the world with its rich history and majestic architecture nestled into the heart of the Alps. The Dalmatian Coast is literally the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, with crystal blue waters and towering mountains all in the same place. The three hour drive along the coast line has been the most breath-taking sight I’ve seen. Mass in Medjugorje and our pilgrimage to Marietzel were both filled with so many graces and blessings, but nothing thus far has been quite as fun or as touching as Poland.
My trip to Poland truly was a life changing one. Before going there I had heard lots of stories about how much of an impact the trip to Poland might have, but I was definitely not prepared at all for what I encountered. We began our trip in Czestochowa, a small city in Poland which is known for its shrine to Our Lady in the monastery of Jasna Gora, which houses the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. This beautiful icon of the Black Madonna was said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on the wood of a table crafted by Jesus himself, and pilgrims travel there every year to pray to Our Lady. We arrived in Czestochowa at 6:00 a.m. and shuffled off of the bus in time to see the ceremonious unveiling of the image, which they do every morning. Later in the day we were even granted our own private Mass in the shrine. A tremendous peace surrounds the monastery and even the whole town. Fall in Czestochowa will be one of my fondest memories, with leaves falling and the smell of autumn in the air – it is truly a special place.
That same day we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was incredible to experience the stark contrast of these two different places. My experience in Auschwitz cannot really be summed up in words. I can only say that amongst the great horror and sorrow I felt there, I also felt a tremendous amount of peace as if the mantle of God’s mercy was truly upon that place. We saw the cell in which Saint Maximilian Kolbe was held, prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and reflected while taking in the cool fall afternoon. We were all reminded that although Auschwitz was a place of evil and death, it is now a reminder of what could be, as well as a monument to the transformative love and mercy of God.
The next day in Poland, we made our way to the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. After Auschwitz, this visit could not come at a better time. There we were able to venerate the relics of St. Faustina, say the Divine Mercy Chaplet, celebrate Mass, and receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Just being there and seeing images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus made me think that out of so much suffering in Poland, God brought so many great and holy people, such as Saint Faustina, Blessed Pope John Paul II, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe. On our last day, we visited Wadowice, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II. There I was able to venerate the relics of St. Padre Pio, see the baptismal font where JPII was baptized, and eat “Pope Cakes,” a pastry that Blessed Pope John Paul II was known to have loved as a boy. A word of advice: if you go there, don’t call it “Pope Cake;” they’ll just laugh at you. I spent my last hours in Wadowice enjoying the sun and the crisp autumn air with my friends as we prepared to say goodbye to Poland, a place that will forever have a special place in my heart.