Sleeping in the streets, waiting for lifts on Polish highways and braving the millions of pilgrims who will flock to Rome on
1 May are the prospects awaiting hundreds of young Poles who plan to hitchhike to Italy for the beatification of John Paul II.
Considered the largest youth group in Europe with its several thousand members, Beczka, the youth group of the Catholic Dominican Cathedral of Krakow, is planning a pilgrimage of several hundred people to Rome for the beatification of John Paul II, the third of four steps in the canonisation process.
“The transport is optional, but most of us are hitchhiking,” said Majka Giołbas, a 23-year-old student member of Beczka.
“It will cost more than usual to get to Rome because of the beatification and students don’t have very much money. But more than that, hitchhiking is a good way to go because you can meet new people and hear so many stories from the lives of strangers,” added Hania Wojnicka, a 22-year-old student member of Beczka.
Up to a million pilgrims from Poland alone are expected to travel to Rome for the beatification, according to a survey by the Homo Homini opinion research agency. Polish travel companies are offering week-long pilgrimages by bus for an average of 1,800 złoty and inflated airfares from Krakow to Rome are fluctuating around 2,000 złoty, creating difficult choices for many Polish people hoping to take part in history.
The event recalls the funeral of John Paul II in 2005, when an estimated three million pilgrims gathered in Rome. Among the pilgrims was Damian Płotnikowski, a 24-year-old student of Pedagogy in Krakow. He made his way to Rome six years ago by bus, but this year is also hitchhiking to see John Paul II beatified.
“There is great adventure in hitchhiking to Rome for this event,” Płotnikowski said. “It is very important for me to be in Rome to see John Paul II beatified
because he was so special to the Polish people.”
John Paul II was well known for his extensive travels and love of outdoor activities, so hitchhiking is a fitting way for the members of Beczka and for Płotnikowski to make their way to Rome. “John Paul II went on many pilgrimages himself. He loved journeys and non-conventional ways of spending time – I think he would probably have come hitchhiking with us too,” Wojnicka said.
In addition to travelling to Rome for free, Płotnikowski plans to stay in the city for free as well. “I plan to leave on 30 April and get to Rome on the same day. Pilgrims can enter the square at 6 am, so I will just hang out in the streets until then so I can get a good spot,” Płotnikowski said.
Giołbas and Wojnicka have a similar plan for Beczka, but do not believe they will be anywhere near the Vatican for the event. “We’re just going to sleep on the streets or in the parks when we are there. We don’t have any hopes of being near St. Peters, but it’s still very important for our members to be together, to experience the moment together,” Giołbas said.
Since he is travelling with only one other person, Płotnikowski plans to stay with someone from the website HospitalityClub.org, which arranges for people to stay at members’ homes for free. Staying with random strangers may just be Płotnikowski’s only option for housing – as early as January Gazeta Wyborcza was reporting that all available rooms were booked in Polish hotels in Rome.
Though regarded as dangerous in many other parts of the world, hitchhiking has been popular in Poland since the Communist era when it was more-or-less institutionalised. Many drivers had an official document that recorded their travels and any passengers they picked up. Since the fall of Communism hitchhiking has become less common, but is still an acceptable form of transportation.
“I still pick people up when I can,” said Artur Demkowicz, S.J., director of DEON.pl, a Polish Catholic News website in Krakow. “You could say that hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers is sort of a spiritual experience. It’s sharing what you have with others, sharing kindness. It’s what our saviour wanted of us,” Demkowicz said.