The Pope in Lisbon (Catholic Press Photo)

WYD: A diverse people and certainty that is infectious

Portuguese vaticanist Aura Miguel recounts her World Youth Day, among surprised adults and a multitude of young people still able to question and bring Christ to the streets.
Aura Miguel

Lisbon has never seen anything like it: one and a half million young people gathered in the name of Christ. They came at the invitation of the Pope and invaded Portugal with such joy and dynamism that many adults were surprised as they had never seen such happy, peaceful and obedient crowds.
On the day of his arrival, the Holy Father met with the country's authorities and called Lisbon a "city of encounter" and a "city of the ocean," leaving an important piece of advice that helps strengthen the universal vocation of this capital city, one of the oldest in Europe. "Lisbon, be yourself, be true to your identity," he said in his first speech. And it is precisely to this city, called to sail "towards ever new and vaster horizons," which has always been multifaceted and multicultural, that the Pope asked to open its arms to young people from all over the world.
And so it was for those who arrived from the five continents and registered as pilgrims from every country in the world, with the sole exception of the Maldives.

Months before WYD, there was much criticism and apprehension in Portugal about the benefits this large gathering could bring to an increasingly secularized country, as is the case in most European countries. "What is the use of expending all this energy if the churches are full of old people and young people stay away?" many observers and critics objected.
Francis, with his realism, addressed the issue during his meeting with bishops, priests, religious and lay people involved in the life of the Portuguese Church. "We are surely living in difficult times, we know that, but the Lord is asking this Church: “Do you want to leave the boat and plunge into disappointment… or do you want once again to lower the nets?" the Pope asked, challenging the Portuguese Church to embrace the world with hope so as to become "a secure port for all those who face the straits, the shipwrecks and the tempests of life."
In essence, on his first day in Portugal, the Holy Father prepared us for the great human impact of WYD in Lisbon. It was as if he was telling us, "Take the risk, go ahead!"

One of the most surprising aspects of these days was to see the city invaded by many, many young people, always present and scattered everywhere. They moved in groups, amused and obedient to their leaders and authorities. One of the main public security police officers said his men had never encountered such a peaceful and friendly crowd. Another surprise was how naturally the young people spoke about the living Christ. Interviewed on TV and radio, or simply when they sang along the street, they all expressed their enthusiasm for Jesus so clearly that it helped me to think how, in this old Europe that is so faith-weary and individualistic, it is already surprising to speak explicitly about Christ in the public streets. This unwavering certainty of young people in Christ infected many adults who left their homes to attend the meetings presided over by the Pope.

At Thursday's welcome party and Stations of the Cross the following day, crowds filled the Eduardo VII Park in the heart of the city. More than 800,000 people spread out in the area, next to the statue of the Marquis of Pombal and in nearby avenues. In the 18th century – more precisely in 1759 – the then minister of the realm Marquês de Pombal, the famous Enlightenment man who decreed the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal, attempted, together with Pope Clement XIV, to extinguish the Society of Jesus. Interestingly, in 2023, his statue was now surrounded by huge Catholic crowds cheering a Jesuit Pope.

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With their typical joy, applause and slogans such as "this is the Pope's youth," the young people joyfully experienced every moment of the celebration. When Francis spoke, he got straight to the point: "It is good to be together in Lisbon. You were invited here by me," he said, calling for applause for Cardinal Patriarch Manuel Clemente and for the bishops and catechists who accompanied the youth to Lisbon. He added, "Yet, above all, it is Jesus who called you here: let us thank Jesus!" Applause broke out and he continued: "You are not here by accident. The Lord has called you, not only in these days, but from the beginning of your days. He called you by name."

Each of those present was invited by the Pope to acknowledge that they are called by name. "In God’s eyes, we are precious children, and he calls us each day in order to embrace and encourage us, to make of us a unique and original masterpiece. Each of us is an “original”, whose beauty we can only begin to glimpse.” Francis then left an invitation: "May these days be vibrant echoes of God’s call of love, for we are precious in God’s eyes, despite the fact that sometimes our own eyes are dimmed by negativity and dazzled by distractions." Moreover, the big goal is "to realize in our hearts that we are loved just as we are." This is the starting point of WYD, but more importantly of life, he said. "So the Church is for everyone, everyone, everyone!" Francis' ability to dialogue with young people was marked by his improvisations, which took precedence over prepared speeches.

The Stations of the Cross included meditations on difficult issues and dramas affecting young people and was performed with great aesthetic beauty and contemporary expressiveness, also featuring fado and other elements of Portuguese culture. The Pope invited everyone to take a few minutes of silence. What did he ask of them? "Now, in a further moment of silence, let each of us think about our own sufferings, our own worries, our own weaknesses. Do not be afraid, just think about them. And think of the desire our souls have to shine once more.” Immediately such silence fell over the crowd that only birds could be heard.

But the weekend brought with it even greater splendor as the great beauty of Jesus, which had already begun to be revealed in the previous days, was reflected in the faces of the 1.5 million young people who gathered in Tagus Park. The natural landscape of the Tagus River, combined with the white structure of the altar in the shape of a gentle wave, shone brightly, both at the Saturday vigil with an unforgettable sunset and on Sunday morning with the glorious blue luminosity of the river waters.
"We do not radiate light by putting ourselves in the spotlight, projecting a perfect image or appearing to be powerful and successful. No, we radiate light when we welcome Jesus into our hearts and learn to love as he does," Francis stressed. For "the true beauty that shines forth is the radiance of a life that is willing to risk everything for the sake of love." Also unforgettable was the great silence that invaded Tagus Park when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on Saturday evening. A silence of intense adoration, with most of the young people praying on their knees. "I closed my eyes and it felt like there was no one there besides Jesus and I. For me it was the most intense moment of WYD," confided one young pilgrim.

On Sunday, in the intense heat and in front of a million and a half young people, Francis recalled the famous words of John Paul II and added, “Dear young people, I would like to look each of you in the eye and say: Do not be afraid! Now I will tell you something even more beautiful: Jesus himself is now looking at you. He knows you; he knows what is in your heart; he smiles at you and tells you once again that he loves you, always and infinitely. Always and infinitely. Go forth then, bringing God’s radiant smile to everyone!”And all that mosaic of colors and diversity, united with Christ and the Pope, vibrated with enthusiasm.

Upon his return to Rome, Francis told reporters that this was the best WYD experience he had so far. Days later, at his Wednesday general audience, the Holy Father summed up what happened in Lisbon: " It was not a holiday, a tourist trip, nor even a spiritual event for its own sake. World Youth Day is an encounter with the living Christ through the Church, the young people go to encounter Christ." And this great crowd of young people, "called by grace to be part of the people of God," is, in Francis' words, "a diverse people, who have no territory, no language, no nationality, but are sent to proclaim to all peoples the joyful Gospel of Christ: that God is Father and loves all his children."