When we first started telling people about our idea to attend this year’s World Youth Day pilgrimage in Lisbon, the most common questions we received were “What is that?” or “What do you do there?”
At the time, those questions were rather difficult to answer. Without having been, it was hard to visualize almost two million young people from all over the world in one place for any reason, let alone because of a shared Catholic faith. But now that we’ve returned with dusty shoes and minor sores, we can tell you that World Youth Day was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
The two of us were in Lisbon from Sunday to the following Monday, and every day was busy. Most of our days were occupied with exploring the beautiful city either on foot or via Lisbon’s public transportation system. The entire city was alive with World Youth Day events. We stumbled upon ornate churches packed to the brim with young Catholics at Mass, attended talks by Bishop Barron, Archbishop Fisher of Sydney and Jason Evert, and devoted a day for Fatima.
It seemed that every nation and language was represented there. Everywhere we went, teens and young adults wore flags and sang songs from their country. For example, we stood next to a youth group who were singing the rosary in Polish while waiting their turn to pass through the basilica at Fatima, complete with guitar and harmonies. The universality of the Catholic Church was on full display.
Some of the best times happened while encountering pilgrims from all around the world. We met an American bishop at the airport, shared breakfast with a newly ordained Canadian priest, stood in line with a Dominican sister living in the Netherlands, and sat with young Catholics from the United Kingdom, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, France, Spain, India and Croatia, to name a few. It’s difficult to think of a more joyful experience than being around countless people whose love for Jesus comes out so vibrantly in conversation, especially people our own age.
Of course, the major highlight was seeing Pope Francis, and attending a papal Mass — a first for both of us. In public parks packed with hopeful pilgrims, we welcomed the pope on Thursday and took part in the way of the cross on Friday. It was surreal to consider the crowd there was only a fraction of the church. It felt as if the whole living body of Christ was present to sing, pray and celebrate together. On Saturday we walked nine miles from the city center to the place of the overnight vigil, spent the night dancing and in adoration, then woke up to more music and Sunday Mass. We concluded World Youth Day there, where Pope Francis revealed the 2027 location (Seoul, South Korea), gave us his blessing, and sent us back to our homes to spread the good news and live out the light that was made stronger in us while there.
We took away many lessons from this week, much of which came from the catechetical talks offered everywhere in Lisbon. Light, listening, movement and fearlessness were common themes. Light refers to what Peter saw on Mt. Tabor, the light of the Transfiguration: the Light of Christ. When we encounter God, like Moses, our faces shine. We are called to reflect that light out to the world, which grows only brighter the more we let ourselves decrease. A way to do this is by embracing silence, because oftentimes the whispering voice belongs to the Lord. When we make ourselves smaller, we can listen more to that quiet voice found in scripture and the teachings of the church. Listening more to that voice is how we shine, how we let Jesus possess our hearts. When this happens, as Bishop Barron put it, “you know who you are, and you move.” Once we encounter Jesus, we move like the animals emptying out of Noah’s ark, a beautiful image of the church. And, the first words God usually says to us are, “do not be afraid.” It was fitting that Pope Francis repeated that phrase several times in his homily, at the most memorable part of World Youth Day.
For Tibor, World Youth Day was an opportunity to grow closer with the Lord. “I learned more about myself, and took to heart these lessons. As an incoming seminarian for our diocese, I detected in many of these homilies a subtext on vocational discernment; how what will make you happy is not money, power, pleasure or honor, but finding your mission and going in haste.”
For Alex, the biggest takeaway and the one he is most grateful for is the laudable faith of so many young people in the world currently. “In America, we have seen a torrential decline in young people attending church, getting involved in the faith, and bringing the Gospel to those around them. In Lisbon, we were surrounded by people our age who were on fire with their faith, who were interested in the history and the impact of the Church, and who were excited to talk about their faith and interact in an authentic and vulnerable way. I was so taken aback by the strength and vibrancy of these teenagers and young adults who just want to grow closer to Jesus. Hearing about peoples’ stories, meeting converts, cradle Christians whose faith was renewed and vitalized later in life, and even people who have always remained faithful made it obvious that the Church is alive and thriving. It is an amazing thing to recognize that you are a Catholic first, and an American second — something that I have not considered growing up. The church is for the whole world, and it is very much alive.”
World Youth Day was by far a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, where we both learned more about ourselves and grew closer to Christ. Alex and Tibor would like to thank Father McQuaide, Father Markellos, our fellow parishioners at St. Patrick’s in Wilmington, and all our friends at the St. Catherine of Siena Young Adults Bible Study for your prayers and support.
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