I write to you outside the very chapel where Our Lady of Fatima appeared to three children during a time in Portugal where anti-Catholicism was high. It’s 104 degrees today yet I see thousands of pilgrims on their knees crawling to the holy ground. I ask myself, what can the world offer that would inspire such devotion? Since landing earlier in the week, we have walked about 16,000 steps through Lisbon each day to venerate relics, participate in Mass at different churches, listen to testimonies, and pray with one another before standing here before Our Lady. Each day became hotter than the last, yet all around us are smiles and greetings from people all around the world.
Pope Francis made his first appearance during the opening with a story of Mary visiting Elizabeth whose heart leapt with joy. We were called to follow her example to come to others with a warm welcome and bearers of joy. This is the mission Pope Francis gave the youth with the reminder, “Do not be afraid.” The calling to be a saint, he said, needs only a simple reply. It is not difficult to be a saint, but it is difficult to resist temptation. One example is being unwilling to step outside our comfort zone, leaving our safe space. In order to reach out to others we must risk these things to bring people to Christ. The world needs his truth and love more than ever.
With each gathering with the Pope, I witnessed this truth again and again. From the welcoming ceremony which had an estimated 500,000 where Pope Francis reminded us that Christ calls us each by name and “there is room for everyone in the Church and, whenever there is not, then, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle.” He reminded us of the illusions of the virtual world that cannot hope to understand us the way Christ does.
During the Way of the Cross, the Holy Father told the 800,000 assembled that no one should feel excluded from the church. Speaking outdoors in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park, the Pope asked the crowd to spend a moment in silence to “tell Jesus what makes you cry in life. Jesus is with us. He cries with us. Because he accompanies us in the darkness that leads us to tears,” he said. It was one of the most powerful events of the week as we heard personal testimonies at each station of how Christ conquered their despair.
Caleb, a 29-year-old American, shared how the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist helped to heal the interior wounds that he carried after his parents’ divorce. His story culminated with a powerful resonating truth. “After tasting all that this world has to offer, He is the only one who has truly satisfied me.”
On Saturday, all the pilgrims walked 5 or more hours through Lisbon to the Fields of Grace for the vigil. The place was not scenic nor was it comfortable. We laid out our sleeping bags on the dirt and moved rocks away from under them, and despite our discomfort and the glaring sun, everyone’s hearts were filled with joy. We awoke to a beautiful sunrise and a closing mass with the Pope. Don’t be afraid to change the world, the Pope told us at the WYD closing Mass. World Youth Day 2023 ended Aug. 6 with 1.5 million people joining Pope Francis for Mass. The Pope sent us on our way with assurances that Jesus knows and loves us and has a plan for our lives.
When I think about how Christ has brought so many different people together, my heart swells and my eyes get misty from the overwhelming joy of witnessing his Kingdom on earth. I am eternally grateful to our church, the people of our parish and Jesus for this experience. We will end this trip soon by delivering the prayer cards of our parishioners. I end this message by saying that Pope Francis’s messages are not only for the youth but for all God’s people for we are all children of God. May God bless you and inspire you to build up the church.
Reflection by Anton Pham, Youth Minister