By BISHOP JOEL M. KONZEN, S.M. | Published September 7, 2023 | En Español
I was pleased to be part of the gathering of young people recently at World Youth Day in Portugal. I had also attended the 2019 WYD in Panama. About 150 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Atlanta were able this year to make the trip to Portugal.
As I recall some of the extraordinary features of the event, I would begin with the fact that 1.5 million people—mostly young adults—gathered in the city of Lisbon, where, throughout the weeklong activities, the streets remained clean and there was no incident of any kind. When that many people come together bound by authentic faith and they are looking only to celebrate and deepen that faith, you are treated to a view of how peaceable a very large group with a common faith can be.
Pope John Paul II instituted the first international World Youth Day in 1986. The event this year in Lisbon was the 16th such opportunity for youth from around the world to come together at a single site. The largest reported attendance was in 1995 when some 5 million young people converged on Manila in the Philippines.
It has become a tradition for the Pope to be present at World Youth Day, to celebrate Mass with those attending, including the many bishops, priests, religious, and laity who accompany the young people. In Lisbon, Pope Francis led three events with the crowd of youth—one at which he was welcomed, a Way of the Cross, and the closing Mass. The pilgrims know that they will hear messages directed especially to them as young Catholics, as was the case when Pope Francis urged them to be missionaries for the faith, acting on the theme for the 2023 event: “Mary arose and went with haste.” The greatest message entrusted to the church, he told them, is Jesus Himself, and Mary “shows us how to welcome this immense Gift into our lives.”
Almost all pilgrims to Portugal were able to combine a visit to Fatima with attendance at the Lisbon events. Although the pope did not offer Mass during his brief visit there, a 16-year-old pilgrim from Spain recovered her sight after receiving Holy Communion at Mass on the day that Pope Francis was in Fatima. That same day the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought from there to Lisbon where it was near the altar for the Sunday Mass with Pope Francis. At the end of Mass, he offered personal prayers before the Fatima statue.
Notable was the interaction and respect shown each other by young people and the priests and bishops in attendance. I was stopped in the street numerous times and asked to be photographed with groups or to sign a memento or to verify—in a game—that a young person had met “bishop number 30.” As I was departing the Way of the Cross, an Atlanta teen shouted that I had confirmed him a few years ago. Youth from Portugal assisted me on arrival and at every location during the pilgrimage. One night, many American bishops joined the young United States pilgrims for prayer and reflection.
I was able to offer a Mass with the Atlanta-area pilgrims in a small church in Lisbon. Most impressive was finding any and every Catholic church as I walked the city hosting young people for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Mass, singing, or a talk given by a bishop, priest, or religious sister. And there are a lot of churches in Lisbon! It felt and looked at times as if we were traversing the hills of Rome. I met groups from Australia, Fiji, the Philippines, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Guatemala, and more. Particularly evident were those bearing flags from Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and Brazil.
It does our church good to be reminded that there are millions of Catholic young people who are eager to meet and hear the Holy Father and to join their peers for worship and fellowship in a gathering like no other.