The True Measure of World Youth Day Is What Happens Next: Attendees Hope Lisbon Gathering Will Have Lasting Impact

Testimonies from the field suggest that in a context of multiple crises for the Church, this week of celebrations and gatherings breathed new life into the institution and its flock around the world.

Young people talk with Pope Francis at the WYD Welcome Ceremony at Edward VII Park in Lisbon on Aug. 3.
Young people talk with Pope Francis at the WYD Welcome Ceremony at Edward VII Park in Lisbon on Aug. 3. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

LISBON, Portugal — As the whirlwind of celebrations has slowly died down in the Portuguese capital, which hosted the 37th World Youth Day (WYD) the first week of August, organizers are assessing the global impact of the event through a variety of questionnaires and surveys. 

The several hundred thousand pilgrims — teenagers, young adults and their leaders — who flocked from all over the world to bear witness to their love of Christ, for their part, are thinking about ways to ensure that the missionary impetus drawn from the field continues in their own lives. 

Although various Catholic observers speculated that this edition of WYD would crystallize the current divisions within the Church — especially in the run-up to the Synod Assembly on Synodality in October, and in the context of multiple sexual scandals of recent years — the few controversies that erupted remained relatively marginal, transcended by a popular fervor indifferent to ideological divides.

Between prayer groups, Masses, Eucharistic adoration, religious talks, concerts and other cultural events, pilgrims had at their disposal all the nourishment for the soul likely to deepen their faith and therefore their confidence in the future.

All Called by Name

“Dear young people, I would like to look into the eyes of each of you and say: Do not be afraid,” Pope Francis declared on the morning of Aug. 6 — the Solemnity of the Transfiguration — during the closing Mass of WYD in Lisbon’s Parque Tejo. 

With these words, reminiscent of those of his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II — the inaugurator of WYD — the Holy Father called them to bring hope to the world and respond to the darkness of our times “with the light of the resurrection of Jesus.”

This morning celebration, which drew some 1.5 million people from almost all countries, followed a large vigil of prayer and adoration with the Pope at the same venue the night before that was considered by many pilgrims to be the highlight of the week. 

“During this moment of communion with Jesus in silent Eucharistic adoration, I saw so many people, many of whom no longer went to Mass, let themselves be touched by the Lord, who called us all to himself by our name, to use the Pope’s words,” Father Mendo Ataíde, the young parochial vicar of the Diocese of Cascais located a few miles west of Lisbon, said in an interview with the Register following the closing ceremony. This vigil was for him a moment of pure grace, awaited by all for more than two years. 

His sentiment, tinged with a certain nostalgia, is all the stronger for the fact that it was during a similar moment of fervor and effervescence, at 2011 WYD in Madrid, that he saw his priestly vocation blossom, leading him to ordination in 2020.


Effective Synodality

As in 2011, Father Ataíde was edified by the smooth running of the Lisbon events, made possible by the collaboration between the clergy and the faithful. This often unnoticed work on the ground involved many lay volunteers at various levels, from programming, welcoming and assisting pilgrims, to checking identities and accommodating pilgrims with the local families.

In Father Ataíde’s view, this fruitful collaboration and desire to grow together as a Church represents an experience of great synodality and a sound source of inspiration in this time of pre-synodal reflection. 

“The starting point is always Jesus; but then we are all called by God, one by one — we all have a mission according to our own charisms, always with this perspective of the Annunciation and Visitation, the main theme of WYD 2023,” he said.

Rejuvenating Pastoral Care  

Describing the sense of emptiness felt by many Portuguese after the pilgrims’ departure, he called on all the faithful to “surf” on this “great wave” of faith and blessings generated by the gathering, without letting it fade away. 

It is the same renewed enthusiasm that Dutch Bishop Everard de Jong, long involved in youth ministry and evangelization in his country, has brought with him back to his diocese. The auxiliary bishop of Roermond since 1999, he has been a firsthand witness to the disaffection of young Catholics for religious practice in his country and to the difficulty of carrying out projects involving young people.

“Sometimes, we’re tempted to just give up and switch off the light, but here, it seems like everything is possible again,” he said in an Aug. 4 interview with the Register in his Lisbon hotel, highlighting how the joy he observed in the young people during the celebrations had rekindled in him a deep missionary drive. “Seeing all these young people who actually believe and are ready to share their faith with the whole world awakened my own youthfulness somehow,” he added. “That’s why I think it is very important for us bishops to participate in this event too, as pastoral care can only be rejuvenated and encouraged by seeing that we can still do great things.”


Hoping in the Future in Fatima

Having taken part in several WYDs, Bishop de Jong knows from experience that participants always return home changed in one way or another, but he is also convinced of the special dimension of this meeting in Portugal, which took place under the gaze of Our Lady of Fatima — the Pope visited the Marian shrine on the morning of Aug. 5.

“Many of them went to Fatima … and they realized that Mary appeared to kids to deliver her message to the world, and I believe that already made up a big part of their experience here,” he said. “This Lisbon meeting was somehow a deep Marian encounter, whose maternal and protective dimension can offer an antidote against one of the greatest evils of our time: that is, the loss of hope in the future among a growing part of the youth, including Catholics.”

Indeed, as the Dutch prelate noted, more and more young Catholics are letting themselves be won over by a certain “catastrophism” regarding climate issues and environment, which instead of spurring them on to greater creativity, compromises their hope and dissuades them from investing in the future, in particular having children. This also represents, in his eyes, a considerable pitfall in the current demographic crisis affecting Europe.

WYD 2023 aftermath
Young people enjoy the faith and fellowship of World Youth Day, including actress Brenda Lorena Garcìa, shown in Fatima during WYD week. Center: Night adoration takes place at Igreja de São Sebastião da Pedreira.(Photo: Solène Tadié photos; courtesy of Brenda Lorena Garcìa)


Mission Territory

This message of hope in an increasingly disenchanted and relativistic Western world is already being carried by many young people, who came to WYD to find the time of unity and renewal they needed to pursue their mission. 

American actress and stuntwoman Brenda Lorena García is definitely one of them. Born and raised in Los Angeles by practicing Catholic parents, she is a familiar face on movie sets. Her most recent films include the blockbusters Fast X, Avatar: The Way of Water and Transformers 5, in which she took part as a stuntwoman. 

“Life in Hollywood can be pretty difficult because people are intentionally anti-Christian, or atheist, which is an additional hardship for the life of faith,” she told the Register during the Lisbon celebrations, mentioning the personal crisis she went through in 2017, which led her to take a half-year break from the spotlight and her frenetic daily life to remain in silence with God. 

“It was during this time of retreat, which made me feel like I was being born again, that God confirmed to me in different ways that I was to stay in Hollywood and that this was my mission territory,” she said. “St. Teresa of Calcutta is a great model of faith for me, and God made me understand that Hollywood was somehow my Calcutta, that many ‘lepers’ were there in need of genuine love.”

Her WYD experience in Panama in 2019 consolidated this existential turning point by bringing out many opportunities to exercise her life mission. “Right after that wonderful spiritual experience in Panama, my career blossomed even more than before, and I felt that the Lord was really guiding me,” she continued.

And it was for this same nourishment for the soul that she came to Lisbon for this year, to keep her heart in tune with God’s plans. “It was important to attend this beautiful, holy event because I want to learn how I can grow in faith and holiness and learn to better meet different people where they are, whatever their state of life.”

“My goal is always to encounter God in other people,” García concluded. “I’ve had the blessing of encountering him face-to-face in the Eucharist, and now I’ve seen him through hundreds of thousands of people in a way I wouldn’t have expected and that will help me keep my spiritual life in check for years to come.”