‘The Lord Was Moving’: World Youth Day Calls and Changes a New Generation

‘Our Lady is going to be there and interceding for these next generations.’

Pilgrims pray by candlelight at Campus Misericordiae in Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day on July 30, 2016.
Pilgrims pray by candlelight at Campus Misericordiae in Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day on July 30, 2016. (photo: CNA file)

“Before World Youth Day I was one way; after World Youth Day, I was another; and what came in between was Him — and World Youth Day facilitated that.”

So said Catholic Voices’ CEO Brenden Thompson, in a line reminiscent of Mary Magdalene in The Chosen series, speaking from his English home to the Register July 10, only a few weeks before World Youth Day 2023, in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1-6. 


The Young Pilgrim

Of an earlier World Youth Day (WYD), namely, Sydney, Australia, in 2008, Thompson recounted how he journeyed there as a reluctant pilgrim. He went, he admitted, only because of pressure from his mother, who was concerned about her son’s lack of faith and an even greater lack of direction. Thompson had just failed his final high-school exams and had no idea what he was going to do with his life. He also had no idea of his Catholic faith, having long since given up any pretense at practicing it. 

Thompson viewed WYD simply as an excuse to visit Australia. “I expected little,” he explained, “and got something unexpected, life-changing: the gift of faith.” 

When pressed to identify the precise moment at WYD when this transformation occurred, he recalled two incidents. The first was a Holy Mass he attended with the youth group with which he had traveled from England. The Mass was to have been in a church, but, for reasons unknown, this proved impossible. Undaunted, the priest leading the group headed to a hotel to see if there was a space there where he could celebrate the Mass. 

Alas, there was no room at the inn. The hotel proprietors, however, did tell the priest he could use a hotel corridor. As strange as this sounds, that is exactly what happened. That Mass, said in a corridor, was to prove decisive in the reversion of Brenden Thompson. 

“It provoked a question about what my life was for, a question I am still answering today,” he said. 

At that WYD, he also made a sacramental confession, and his life has never been the same since. 

Today, Thompson is CEO of Catholic Voices, a British project to improve the Church’s representation in the media. 

Brenden Thompson
Brenden Thompson(Photo: Catholic Voices )

With one exception, he has attended every WYD since 2008. In contrast to his earlier reluctance to attend WYD, this year he will be going not just as a pilgrim but as a speaker, encouraging a whole new generation in their Catholic faith. Hearing of this remarkable transformation brought about by his 2008 WYD experience, what does his mother think today as her son prepares to speak at WYD 2023? “She says sending me to WYD in Australia was the best money she ever spent!” 


The Youth Leader

Self-described as a “minister to ministers,” Denver-based Jim Beckman leads an apostolate called ImpactCenter, which serves and cares for people in full-time ministry. His first WYD was Denver in 1993. Speaking to the Register via email, he said that he was “drawn to John Paul II’s vision for these events to be moments of encounter with the Person of Christ and an experience of the breadth of the young people from the international Church.” He also accompanied youth groups to Paris (1997), Rome (2000) and Madrid (2011). 

Reflecting on his WYD experiences, he said that the “most powerful moments” were among the young people. “I still tell stories today of deep conversion experiences I witnessed in many of their lives. On several of the pilgrimages, I had the privileged opportunity to help young people learn how to pray. I would teach some things, but most of the prayer content was all around us, in the places we were visiting and the things we were doing together.” This accompaniment encompassed helping them to learn “the art of opening their hearts to God and how to listen for his voice.”

“My favorite moments were hearing these young people come alive with amazing stories of how they had experienced God in prayer throughout the trip,” he recalled.

Jim Beckman
Jim Beckman(Photo: Courtesy of subject)

Some of the trips were what Beckman described as “beyond difficult — they were grueling for me, personally. Yet I was in a key leadership role and had many people depending on me and my presence as leader. In every one of those situations, God provided all the grace that was necessary, at times even when I felt like I had nothing left to go on. I learned a dependency on the Lord through those experiences that have greatly benefited me in the rest of my life.”

“After numerous experiences of the event,” Beckman observed, “I concluded that the whole WYD experience is a lot like life, or at least the spiritual journey of life. The kinds of things people experienced on these pilgrimages would be analogous to what they lived for the rest of their lives. We are all on a spiritual journey throughout our life; events like the WYDs can be a great source of inspiration and even ‘training’ for the bigger reality.”


The Priest

Father Bjorn Lundberg is a priest serving in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. He told the Register via email that he has participated in six WYDs: Denver (1993), Toronto (2002), Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008), Madrid (2011) and Krakow (2016). His first WYD in Denver was with the Maximilian Kolbe Youth Group from Tacoma, Washington. “I was excited by the possibility of seeing St. John Paul II,” he remembered. “I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but was drawn to JPII and the idea of being with young Catholics from around the world.”

So, what did he find? “I found it to be a tremendous event with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of youths. There is nothing like it, nothing comparable as a phenomenon, nothing of this magnitude. It is joyful, penitential, life-changing, an experience of grace, and a tremendous witness to a world that has a hard time believing in God,” adding that “organizers and host cities always seem unprepared for the reality of so many youths appearing with an octogenarian pope and being full of joy and hope.”

That World Youth Day in Denver 30 years ago was life-changing for the young Bjorn. 

“At Denver, I became aware that we were being called by God. … I remember as we were on the bus ride from Seattle to Denver; one night, there were lightning strikes as storms played out on the horizon. … I always fought a calling to the priesthood and didn’t want to think about that. Yet I was aware that John Paul wanted us to witness to the truth about life and faith. It made a deep impression on me, as I was about to start college.” 

Ten years later, he entered seminary and is today a priest. This veteran of many World Youth Days said that one particular moment at WYD 2011 remains with him: “At Madrid, the organizers expected perhaps 1 million, and it seemed like 2 million showed up. It was so hot they had fire trucks spraying water on this mass of humanity at an airstrip outside of Madrid where we were camped out.”

“There was some heat exhaustion and various aspects of the penitential experience,” Father Lundberg said. “That night, it had rained, thankfully. Pope Benedict was present for the vespers service, and it was after dusk. They announced, in multiple languages, that there would be a brief period of Eucharistic adoration. In a relatively short time, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar of the main pavilion stage, and, suddenly, there was silence.”

He recalled, “You would not say that you could hear a pin drop, but hundreds of thousands of somewhat raucous teenagers who were understandably excited and full of noise and exuberance were suddenly enveloped in silence and quiet prayer. … It was very moving to see the Lord working.”

Father Bjorn Lundberg
Father Bjorn Lundberg attends a diocesan family festival in June. (Photo: Diocese of Arlington )

What are his hopes for WYD in Lisbon? “As Pope Francis emphasizes,” he said, “we need to accompany people where they are, more than ever; and pray that this accompaniment will be charged by grace in Portugal.” He added, “Fatima is more relevant than ever. Our Lady chose young people who were shepherds and who needed to learn more about the truth of the word of God and to be formed and encouraged to bear witness to the world.”

“Our Lady is going to be there and interceding for these next generations,” he said. “I am confident that God will be working imperceptibly in these lives, and I hope they are not afraid to say ‘Yes’ to what God is inviting them to.”