Cardinal-Elect Aguiar’s ‘Dream’ for World Youth Day

Speaking with the Register last month, the chief organizer of WYD 2023 discussed the event’s preparations and the fruit that he hopes it will produce.

Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar is in charge of organizing World Youth Day 2023, which will take place Aug.1-6  in Lisbon, Portugal.
Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar is in charge of organizing World Youth Day 2023, which will take place Aug.1-6 in Lisbon, Portugal. (photo: Clara Raimundo)

Last month, the Register spoke with Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar, the Portuguese auxiliary bishop who is in charge of organizing World Youth Day 2023, which will take place Aug.1-6  in Lisbon, Portugal. 

In another more recent interview, published three days before Pope Francis announced his appointment as a cardinal, Bishop Aguiar sparked controversy by commenting that at this year’s World Youth Day, “We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all.” He subsequently clarified to ACI Digital that “World Youth Day is an invitation to all the young people of the world to experience God.”

In his interview with the Register, the future cardinal said that even more than World Youth Day itself, he values the “before-and-after” aspects of the event. Regarding the preparation, he considers that the pilgrimage throughout Portugal of its official symbols — a “Pilgrim Cross” and an icon of Our Lady — has been “a unique experience” that mobilized many more young people than he ever imagined. 

As for the “after,” his dream is that the young people who go to Lisbon will “return to their countries with the desire and will to be better, better people, regardless of their religion, regardless of everything else.” Why could this occur? “Because in Lisbon they will find white and Black people, fat and thin, from the South and the North, rich and poor, Muslims, Jews and others,” he said, and will “discover that difference is wealth. And that all this diversity of brothers and sisters is always an opportunity.” 

But Bishop Aguiar, who at 49 years old will be the second-youngest member of the College of Cardinals, also expressed concern that the Church might not prepared to give all these young people what they will need afterward.


Did you have any idea of what to expect when you accepted the mission of coordinating the organization of WYD Lisbon 2023?

No, not at all. … Only from the perspective of someone who lived the World Youth Day as a pilgrim, in Sydney [2008], and then as a secretary of a bishop, in Kraków [2016]. But I had no idea of the depth, breadth, weight and size of the organization. I suspected of some things, as I had some expertise in organizing other initiatives, but absolutely nothing of this magnitude. It was only when I was in Panama, behind the scenes of the World Youth Day, in October/November 2018, with more or less two months to go before its beginning, that I began to realize the dimension of such an event.


What have been the biggest challenges?

Just like the Portuguese explorers on the 15th and 16th centuries, who navigated with the map they were making as they went along, that’s very much the experience of organizing a World Youth Day; because there is no one, absolutely no one, apart from the young people of Panama, the young people of Kraków, Rio, Madrid and of the other cities that have already organized a World Youth Day, who really knows what it’s like. Incidentally, we have a volunteer from Panama working with us who helps us a lot, to at least avoid those crass mistakes that we could possibly commit. We are learning with our capabilities, our weaknesses, our territory, the Church, the institutions, the partners … and thus we are designing the World Youth Day — and always on top of a lot of unpredictability, because the numbers of pilgrims, those registered, the closed and definitive numbers, which allow us to make decisions that are logistically serious, remain open. And it is not possible to close these numbers because registrations end on Sunday, Aug. 6. That doesn’t help much, does it? 

And there are a number of things, be it food, transport, vestments, the various things we have in the contracts ... that, until a certain date, we can order more, but if we order later there is no longer a guarantee of delivery. So there is a big challenge here!


It’s only possible to overcome with a team that also continues to grow.

Yes! At the end of 2018, the Lisbon patriarch [Cardinal Manuel Clemente] asked us something that I think is very important: First, he asked us to create a small working group, with some priests more connected to the different areas. And, at a certain point, he asked each one of them to choose laypeople, young people, boys and girls who had some experience, had some availability, and that’s what we did. And today, four years later, the team, almost entirely, is made of young people, 90-or-so-percent laypeople, and this leads us to a permanent synodality in the process of making decisions and to a permanent learning with many people who did not know each other.

And, as the Pope says, the synod is not a parliament, in which they get there, speak and the majority goes that way. No, at the synod, each one arrives, shares, and the Holy Spirit chooses the path. It can be the majority; it can be the minority: getting to know each other, working together, as a team, everyone being able to say what they think, a decision being made.

This is a very interesting school, but also a very hard one, mainly because making mistakes has consequences; it hurts; it implies correcting, and it implies not repeating. And this is a team, and the team is getting bigger. 


Did you need to go back to drinking 20 coffees a day, like you did before joining the seminar?

It’s true. ... I’m starting to get closer! I can still sleep, but I go to bed later and get up at the same time every day. Around 7am, it’s dawn, but with “caffeine addiction” I still feel capable! 


You said in an interview, before becoming president of the WYD Foundation, that “the most important thing about World Youth Day is not the World Youth Day; the most important thing is the preparation for the World Youth Day and then what follows it.” Do you still think like that?

Absolutely, yes. The World Youth Day is a week of fireworks. It’s very good; it’s very beautiful. The Pope is coming. ... But it’s not the important thing about the World Youth Day. The important thing is what remains, for Portugal, for the Portuguese, for young people and for the world. And as far as preparation is concerned, the pilgrimage of symbols has been deeply touching. It has been a unique experience. Traveling across the country, all the dioceses, north and south, coast and countryside, on the continent and on the islands … I came to appreciate even more the strength, joy, resilience, dreams and future of the Church and of our country. In many places with few people, with few expectations, we had so many young people who came out of nowhere. It is this ability of Christ of the cross to question, to provoke.

And we have to understand that these young people need more than an offer of Mass at 11am on Sunday. All these young people who are being [called] and who have been working in the dioceses for the past 18 months, since the pilgrimage of symbols began, all these young people said, “Present — we are available to bear witness to the living Christ!” 

When I am asked about the fruits of this journey, I have already seen those fruits. The elements of the diocesan organizing Committees that accompany the pilgrimage of the symbols every month, in each diocese, are true heroes, those men and women, boys and girls, who for a month suspended their jobs, their schools, their families, their own lives and they spent a month [full-time] with the symbols back and forth. There are dioceses where the symbols were not alone for a second, not even overnight. I have been telling the bishops in all the dioceses that it is necessary to reflect on these men and these women, on these lay people who gave everything. Who sacrificed their families, sacrificed their wallets, sacrificed their things to give themselves completely, and it is these guys who give themselves completely that the Lord is putting in front of our eyes.


What does the Church have to offer to these young people so that they stay after the WYD?

We have to respond — and by “we,” I mean the hierarchical Church, those responsible for the various sectors, priests, laypeople, whatever — we have to be aware that these people need an answer; they need our availability to follow the same path. And it is not enough to say: “Okay, my dear young people, so now, on Sunday, at 11am, Mass … and next week, Sunday, at 11am, Mass,” and so on. This cannot be. The preparation for the World Youth Day must also be a provocation and a test of our ability on the ground to respond to these young people who said, “Present.” 

Einstein said that insisting on doing the same thing and expecting different results must be insanity. And sometimes it seems to me that, in the Church, we frequently think that “it has always been like this, it has been like this for 2,000 years, so we don’t need to change anything.”… It is one of the things that annoys me the most: going anywhere where you are trying to solve a problem and hearing, “Here, according to tradition, it has always been like this …” 

The “it has always been like this” is the pastoral care of maintenance! It has always been like that, until one day it stops being like that, because there is no one left to carry out this maintenance.


Will there be participants from all the countries in the world?

If all registrations are confirmed, we will have young people from virtually every country in the world. Some countries are going through more delicate situations. There is a case in which the local Church itself had decided not to participate, because the experience they have from other editions is that young people take the opportunity of World Youth Day to run away. There are these kinds of concerns.


The U.S. is the country with the highest number of applicants from outside Europe. Were you expecting that?

Yes, and I want even more! As a matter of fact, when we went to Brazil, we were considering going to the United States, as well, mainly to Denver — where the World Youth Day took place in 1993 — but then, unfortunately, it was not possible. But we asked the U.S. bishops’ conference, and I think it’s ready,  for a video version of the [World Youth Day theme song]. It has been a very interesting work, very close with them. 

Sometimes we look at the United States and think that the only problem they don’t have is money, but that is not true. There are communities and people who, like others, are also unable to participate because they  don’t have the economic capacity to respond.


How many Ukrainians and Russians are currently enrolled?

We have some registrations from both of the countries. It is a dossier that we are dealing with great discretion, with great sensitivity. A few days ago, it did not reach 300 in total: mostly Ukrainians; the Russians didn’t reach 100.


And will there be a meeting between a Ukrainian and a Russian, as the Pope said on his return from Hungary?

It’s still not clear what will happen. We are working so that, in one of the key moments, be it the welcome, the Way of the Cross, the vigil or the Mass, there will be a meeting that involves both. I believe that there are young Russians and there are young Ukrainians who want peace. And peace is not being against anyone. It is “I want peace with you; you want peace with me.” It is not “you are bad; I am good.” We’re not going that way, are we?


Thinking about the issue of war: In 20 years, these young people will be political, economic, financial decision-makers. Will they make better decisions because they learned something at World Youth Day about the Church’s social doctrine, about nonviolence?

I don’t want it to be only when they are decision-makers in the future; I want it to be today. I would like that the meetings that we are going to provide will provoke them to reflect on Laudato Si, on Fratelli Tutti and on the new “Economy of Francis.” Young people have to tell us (and we have to want to listen to them) how they want to design today, tomorrow and the future, in many areas of the economy, peace and war, international politics.

Above all, my dream is that these young people who come to Lisbon return to their countries with the desire to be better, better people, regardless of their religion, regardless of everything else. Why? Because in Lisbon they found white and Black people, large and small, from the South and the North, rich and poor, Muslims, Jews and others, and they discovered that difference is wealth. And that all this diversity of brothers and sisters is always an opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Clara Raimundo is a Portuguese journalist who works for 7MARGENS, a digital newspaper that specializes in religion and human-rights topics. She studied religious journalism at the Catholic University of Lisbon and has been the editor in chief of My Pope Magazine in Portugal.