On Tuesday of this week, August 2nd, Pope Francis arrived in Portugal for the first World Youth Day (WYD) since the Covid -19 Pandemic. He was accompanied by journalists on the papal flight, and he joked with them that he will return to Rome on Sunday “more youthful”. WYD brings together young people from every corner of the globe to celebrate their Catholic faith.
At 86, Francis is the oldest pope to ever preside over a WYD celebration. Despite his recent surgery and struggles with mobility, his schedule for Lisbon is full of events, including a total of eleven speeches over five days and a trip to the country’s hugely popular Marian shrine of Fatima.
In 1984 at the close of the Holy Year of Redemption, over 300,000 young people around the world responded to the invitation of Pope Saint John Paul II for an international Jubilee of youth on Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square. The organizing committee expected 60, 000 participants, 250, 0000 came.
Near the main altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica stood a large wooden cross, 3.8 meters high which John Paul had requested be placed in full view. At the end of the Holy Year, after he closed the Holy Door, he entrusted that cross to the youth of the world to be carried as a symbol of the love of Christ for humanity. It is now known as the World Youth Day Cross.
The following Palm Sunday coincided with the United Nations International Year of the Youth; the pope took the opportunity to welcome the youth of the world again to Rome. This time too the answer was great: 300,000 went to the churches throughout the city for moments of prayer and catechesis, and then they gathered in St Peter’s Square to attend the celebration with the Holy Father.
After these two gatherings, many were wondering what caused such a great response, what young people were searching for, and what they wanted. During many of his pilgrimages around the world, the pope held youth-only ministries and it was his opinion that young people felt the desire to meet, to share their experience, listen to a word of faith, look to the future, and renew and confirm their commitment. Therefore, at the end of 1985, he announced the institution of the World Youth Day, to be celebrated each year in the dioceses. Starting in 1987, WYD was celebrated for the first time internationally and every two to three years from then on in different host cities.
For many young people WYD offers an opportunity to nourish their faith throughout the course of a weeklong programme of spiritual activity that integrates catechism, public rituals – including a mass reenactment of the Stations of the Cross – and performing arts. The event is inaugurated by the completion of the “Journey of the Cross and Icon”, the latter being an image of the Virgin Mary also donated by the late pope. The celebration culminates in a Sunday Mass led by the Holy Father.
WYD is known for its large crowds over the course of its history, quite a few had millions in attendance. In 1995 world records were even broken when it was hosted in the Philippines. At the time, it was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records, when the crowds attending Mass in Luneta Park, Manila were so dense that in order to get through them the Pope had to trade his Popemobile for a helicopter.
Bringing Something Back
More than 400,000 young people have registered for this month’s event in Lisbon, including a delegation from Ukraine and one from Russia.
Approximately 1,500 young people from Ireland signed up for official pilgrimages to WYD, while many others have traveled independently. A number of Irish bishops are leading delegations of youth from their parishes. Young Irish Catholics have been urged to return home as missionaries and rebuild youth ministry, which was deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bishop Michael Router who is leading pilgrims from Armagh said, “I think a lot of priests would be reporting that they find it difficult to get people involved in parish life. World Youth Day hopefully will energise a number of people to try and get something working at parish level”.
Young adulthood is a time of great change, and it is easy to become half-hearted about your faith. WYD can serve as an antidote to the isolation and loneliness many young adults experience because they are seen as outsiders for going to Mass, or for whatever other markers of Catholic identity they embrace. The chance to spend some time in an environment in which they are the clear majority, where their values are reinforced and celebrated rather than derided and mocked, and in which they can finally be who they are is often a life-changing experience. Here they encounter other like-minded contemporaries who are also committed to and interested in their faith, talking about Jesus and meditating and the Scriptures.
WYD offers a chance to experience the reality that the Catholic Church is bigger than parish and personal experience. The body of Christ is universal, alive and well.
God Be Praised!
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan