By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

Sipping on a cup of coffee from the Corner Stone Café at Christ the King Church and Catholic Center BatonRouge, Rachel Haydel savored a favorite, familiar routine for many students to settle into the fall semester, chatting over a cup of java. But it was evident from the way her conversation lifted away from “the home of the Tigers” and plunged into the heart of Europe and the stomping grounds of one of the most beloved saints of this century that her life had changed during the summer with a mission of “building a civilization of love and truth.” 

p 3 JP2 project.tif

Participants in the JP2 Project held a retreat at Zakopane, Poland in the Tatras Mountain range, where St. John Paul II hiked as a young priest and took young adults on retreats there. Photo provided by Claire Lavastida and Rachel Haydel  


Haydel and fellow LSU student Claire Lavastida spent six weeks living and learning in St. John Paul II’s “beloved Krakow,” hiking in his footsteps and visiting places he loved as part of the JP2 Project. They attended classes at the Pontifical University of John Paul II and went on excursions that connected them with the culture and history of Poland and the saint. 

Haydel had read “Theology of the Body” and was moved by St. John Paul II’s upholding the dignity of humans as images of God and insisting the mind, soul and body cannot be separated.  

She relished the opportunity to learn about St. John Paul II as the “human person” and person of spirit.  

“He was an outdoorsy person and close to young people,” said Haydel.  

The JP2 Project is dedicated to helping young people become builders of a civilization of love and truth through programs that enable them to live in the example of Pope St. John Paul II.  

The programs not only teach students about St. John Paul II in his city, but in his style. From intellectual discussions to outdoor trips, youth are offered the challenge, adventure and responsibility that lead to a life of greatness.  

Lavastida and Haydel’s group hiked the Tatras mountain range, where St. John Paul II hiked as a young priest. He also took young adults on retreats there.  

“It was an awesome hike, very rocky, very strenuous. The whole time we were holding up the cross,” Haydel said.  

She and Lavastida also relished spending time in JP II “hot spots” in Italy, including Turin, Pollone, Milan and Florence.  

At Turin, they visited Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati’s home. 

Blessed Frassati inspired St. John Paul II’s love for combining faith and the outdoors. Blessed Frassati had a passion for sports, hiking and social justice. He died from contracting polio during one of his visits to serve the poor in Turin. St. John Paul II beatified him in May 1990. 

Learning about the lives of St. John Paul II and other saints she encountered in Poland and Italy, Haydel said she discovered it was “not so much about the extraordinary things they did, but the ordinary things they did.”  

Haydel said St. John Paul II encountered the culture and brought out its beauty. 

“He loved food, the culture and had friends and laughed,” said Haydel. “It’s good for young people like me to see he lived and loved life to the fullest.”  

Lavastida said St. John Paul II had a forward-looking vision that makes him timeless.  

“He was a person in-tune to a changing world, not just the world he was in,” said Lavastida. “He didn’t just speak to the correct times he was in, but to where he thought the culture was going … He was seeing not only the place where he was, but the human heart, which is hurting.”  Lavastida said she walked over and prayed at the shrine of St. Faustina, another saint who powerfully impacted St. John Paul II’s life. </span id=”18″>

“Every moment I felt we were surrounded by saints. ‘Wow! JP II’s house where he lived … here’s where he celebrated Mass,’ ” said Lavastida.  

She and Haydel observed you could walk down the street and encounter a eucharistic procession with thousands of people. 

Lavastida said the people of Poland have a “quieter state of mind” and are “happy with their simple lives.”  

“They have a simple peace about them,” said Lavastida.  

She enjoyed the community and often met people at a coffee shop. She made lifelong friends in Poland and within her traveling group, especially Haydel.  

She also observed people were never alone.  

“Although there were a lot of people with disabilities, they were always with someone,” Lavastida said. “There were never any homeless or people asking for money because everyone was like family.”  

A history major, the trip was valuable for Lavastida in her plans to teach history. She was impacted by a visit to Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration and extermination camp.  

“It’s a hard place to go to,” she said. “To see all the terrible things that happened there.”  

Despite its tumultuous history, Polish people are passionate about their homeland, strong-willed and stand up for values, which explains the molding of St. John Paul II’s outlook and approach to life, said Lavastida and Haydel.  

“You can see how much they love their country and Catholicism,” said Lavastida.  

Joseph and Corrine MacDonald founded the non-profit project in 2016 in Florida. Corrine had been working in study-abroad programs for five years, and seeing the impact the program can have on college students, she took them on pilgrimages of Poland.  

The couple, who met in Rome, took a group of college students to World Youth Day in Poland in 2016.  

“We realized there were no American university programs in Krakow and definitely no Catholic programs,” Joseph MacDonald said.  

As doors opened, the MacDonalds realized God was calling them to establish a study program where people can learn about the pope who left an “indelible mark” not only on the city but the world, said Joseph, who was at LSU on Oct. 24-26 with Corrine and their children, Marysia, 3, and Chiara, 1, as part of a U.S. tour to spread the message about the project.  

Although many JP2 Project participants were young children when St. John Paul II died, he has left a strong impression on them.  

“I was excited to see how JP II has inspired young people, especially after they read ‘Theology of the Body,’ ” said MacDonald.