Going to World Youth Day Lisbon With Marian Haste

COMMENTARY: To be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of ebullient peers singing, laughing and praying in various languages provides an indelible lesson that the Catholic faith is a treasure bigger and more beautiful than most had previously realized.

An Our Lady of Fatima statue is seen in the Basílica da Estrela in Lisbon, Portugal.
An Our Lady of Fatima statue is seen in the Basílica da Estrela in Lisbon, Portugal. (photo: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

World Youth Days are not just for those who are able to attend in person but are meant to renew and rejuvenate the entire Church. 

They provide the occasion for Catholics of every generation to convert and become more childlike (Matthew 18:3), to ponder the mystery of youth and to confront or revisit the pivotal questions that preoccupy this phase, especially how one is to live one’s life in correspondence to God. 

So as Pope Francis and young pilgrims from across the world prepare to convene in Lisbon Aug. 1-6 for the 37th World Youth Day, everyone in the Church should be accompanying them spiritually — not merely praying for them, but with them. 

I have been privileged to attend several World Youth Days. As a recent college graduate in 1993, I drove across the country with my twin brother for a life-changing encounter with Pope St. John Paul II in Denver. After my priestly ordination, I’ve accompanied young people from my parishes to several of these international youth gatherings, as I’ve observed those in very different stages of their spiritual journey awaken to an adventure of faith far bigger than they had previously thought possible. 

World Youth Days are a compelling experience of God, as youth leave their comfort zones and, often at considerable expense, travel great distances in search of God and what he may be asking of them. There is an inescapable focus on God, with Mass each day, the Rosary on buses, Stations of the Cross on streets, visits to churches and shrines, the sacrament of confession offered simultaneously by the pope and thousands of priests, all-night vigils of prayer, and the most well-attended celebration of Mass most will ever experience. All of these help confirm that God is indeed real, loves each of us personally, and is worthy of our love and life in return. 

World Youth Days are also a powerful encounter with the catholicity of the Church, as young people not only have the chance to pray on several occasions with the pope but also to meet and grow in communion with fellow youth from all over the world. It’s not easy to grow up as a Catholic in the United States, especially as many parishes are graying and thinning, popular culture derides Catholic faith and morals, some religious leaders behave as villains rather than heroes, and many endure broken families and the temptation to hold God accountable. 

To be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of ebullient peers singing, laughing and praying in various languages provides an indelible lesson that the Catholic faith is a treasure bigger and more beautiful than most had previously realized. They return fortified to live and share the faith as a source of hope and remedy for the loneliness and purposelessness that plague so many of their friends.

World Youth Days are, third, a great means to grow in the knowledge of the faith, both in times of formal catechesis with their chaplains, bishops, and zealous lay and religious apostles, but also informally through discussing their challenges and confusions with their fellow wayfarers. 

On the trips I’ve led, I’ve had the young pilgrims prepare brief presentations on the saints and sanctuaries we would encounter along the way, as well as give summaries of what the popes have said on previous World Youth Days. The fruits of that work have been seen not only in the presenters, but in the impact their reflections had on their fellow spiritual travelers. It has helped them to respond with greater confidence to what is always one of the principal papal summons of every World Youth Day: to go and teach all nations, beginning with the lost sheep of their own families and schools. 

As the Church prepares for Lisbon, she does so building on what has already taken place in the huge international gatherings in Rome, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Compostela, Czestochowa, Denver, Manila, Paris, Toronto, Cologne, Sydney, Madrid, Rio, Krakow and Panama, as well as in home dioceses in intervening years, on Palm Sunday originally and, more recently, on the Solemnity of Christ the King. 

The theme on which Pope Francis will be focusing in Lisbon will be the mystery of the Visitation, specifically St. Luke’s words that “Mary arose and went with haste” (Luke 1:39). In his message preparing the Church for this encounter, the Holy Father pondered how this young girl, immediately after Gabriel the Archangel appeared and she accepted to become the mother of the eternal Son of God, is a model for how every young Catholic, filled with the grace of baptism and blessed within by the Lord’s presence in Holy Communion, is summoned to get up and bring him with urgency to others. 

“Mary could have focused on herself and her own worries and fears about her new condition,” Pope Francis writes. “Instead, she entrusted herself completely to God. Her thoughts turned to Elizabeth. She got up and went forth. … The young Mary did not remain paralyzed, for within her was Jesus, the power of resurrection and new life. … [She] is a model for young people on the move, who refuse to stand in front of a mirror to contemplate themselves. … Mary’s focus is always directed outwards. She is in a permanent state of exodus, going forth from herself towards that great Other who is God and towards others, her brothers and sisters, especially those in greatest need.” 

He tackles head-on the type of indifference and lethargy that can lead youth not to get involved when others need help, or to wait for someone else to approve or take the lead. He gets practical and simple, urging them to think about all those who look forward just to a visit, like “the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned and refugees,” or those who are lonely and abandoned. “The real question in life,” he says, “is for whom am I living?” 

Mary shows us how to answer. 

To have this dialogue in Lisbon is a significant choice. The Portuguese capital was one of the great launching pads to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) in search of a new world. 

“In the 15th and 16th centuries,” Pope Francis comments, “great numbers of young people — including many missionaries — set out for worlds unknown, not least to share their experience of Jesus with other peoples and nations.” The Saturday night vigil of adoration and Sunday concluding Mass will take place overlooking the majestic Vasco de Gama Bridge on the shores of the Tejo River from which the bold explorers set out. It is a setting fit to inspire the whole Church to a similar spiritual audacity. 

Lisbon is important, as well, because it is the birthplace of St. Anthony, right across from Lisbon’s Cathedral. It’s where he first received his vocation to become a great Scripture scholar and saint of charity. The church built over his home is a place where many young people have and can, through the prayers and example of this patron of lost things, find definitive direction. 

Lisbon is likewise Providential because it is less than an hour’s drive from Fatima, where Our Lady went in haste several times in 1917 to summon three Portuguese young people, and through them the Church, to personal conversion and to prayer and sacrifices for conversion of others. On Aug. 5, as Pope Francis travels to Fatima to pray with and for sick young people in the Chapel of Apparitions, it will be an occasion for the whole Church to respond anew to Mary’s appeal. 

Lisbon is likewise notable because of its history. The opening ceremony will take place in Edward VII Park, which is right next to the monumental statue and iconic roundabout of the Marquis de Pombal, who rebuilt Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake but who is infamous for his radical secularism, ruthless hatred for the Church and the clergy, and for his spiteful work to suppress the Jesuits. To have the successor of St. Peter and first Jesuit Pope bring hundreds of thousands of young people to celebrate the Catholic faith and pray next to his monument is an inspiring witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection at work in the Church, a bold summons never to be afraid, and an unforgettable opportunity to pray for the Church’s persecutors, not just today but throughout Church history. Therefore, together with Mary, the Holy Father and Jesus — whom Pope Francis says is “the greatest gift,” “the great message entrusted to the Church” and the center and hero of World Youth Day — let us all go with haste to Lisbon and, from there, set out anew.