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At World Youth Day: ‘The biggest job I’ll ever have’

As World Youth Day continues Aug 1-6 in Lisbon, Portugal, The Pillar’s WYD correspondent, Filipe d’Avillez, brings you a daily news diary with everything you’ll want to know:

After a Wednesday mostly dedicated to protocol, Pope Francis on Thursday finally had his World Youth Day meeting with the youth who had come to Lisbon, in part to be with him. 

Pilgrims from Cambodia at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

The welcoming ceremony took place in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park, the same venue for the opening Mass, with Pope Francis telling 500,000 young people that God calls them by their name. 

“Dear friends, if God calls you by name, it means that for him you are not a number, but a face. I would like you to remember that many people know your name, yet they do not call you by name.

Certainly, your name is known, it appears on social networks and is processed by algorithms that associate it with likes and preferences, all of which is useful for market research, yet it does not begin to approach you in your uniqueness. How many wolves hide behind smiles of false goodness, saying that they know you, though they do not love you. They insist that they believe in you and promise that you will become someone, but then abandon you when you no longer matter.

These are the illusions of the virtual world and we must be careful not to let ourselves be deceived, for many realities that attract us and promise happiness are later shown to be what they really are: vain, superfluous and surrogate things that leave us empty inside. But Jesus is not like that. He trusts you, for him you truly matter.”

The pope also told the assembled pilgrims that nobody should feel excluded from the Church:

“Dear friends, I want to make this clear to you who are allergic to dishonesty and to empty words: there is room for everyone in the Church and, whenever there is not, then, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle.”

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Early birds

The first pilgrims began arriving at the park before 11 a.m. By 3 p.m. there was no room in the park itself, with later arrivals having to settle for the avenue further down, past the roundabout named after the Marquis of Pombal, an 18th-century Portuguese prime minister who rebuilt the city after the devastating 1755 earthquake, and who is also famous for having expelled the Jesuits from Portugal. Oh, the irony.

The atmosphere was festive, as it always is at WYD, despite the searing heat and the strong wind. Fortunately, as per The Pillar’s recommendation, the group from England’s Brentwood diocese had brought SPF 50 sunscreen. 

English pilgrims in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Fr. Dominic Howarth said that his group was eager to see the pope. “As always, we are waiting for inspiring words for young people. [Pope Francis] has such a gift for communicating deep truths with great accessibility, he is so wonderful at inspiring the young,” he said.

The pope has made some powerful speeches and homilies in Portugal, including telling students of the Catholic University Thursday morning that they should not see their degrees as licenses for merely pursuing material comfort, but rather as mandates to work for a better society. 

But how much of it actually gets through to the youth? Especially since he mostly speaks in Spanish, and those in the crowds do not have access to translation. 

In the case of the Brentwood crowd, they came prepared:

“One of our young people has press accreditation, so we make sure, as far as we can, that we get the English texts,” Fr. Howarth explained. “That helps our young people understand what is being communicated, because it is well worth hearing.”


Not so much fun with flags

The welcoming ceremony itself was a carefully choreographed event. In the morning I spoke to Matilde Trocado, who is leading the team responsible for the stage events. 

Matilde, 40, usually directs musicals in Portugal, and her work is marked by her deep faith. 

I wanted to know if this was her biggest job yet. 

“I think it’s the biggest job I’ll ever have,” she replied.

Previous World Youth Days had relied on professional local performers, but Matilde has been working with a group called Ensemble23, composed entirely of amateur volunteers from a variety of countries. 

It has been a challenge, but she told me she was confident: “We’re taking a few risks, but we believe everything will go well.” To her great relief, it did. 

Crowds wait for Pope Francis to pass by in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Part of the welcoming ceremony was a procession with the flags of the countries present in WYD. 

All of them? 

Well, that’s where things get complicated. 

“Never get involved with a flag procession, it’s a nightmare,” one WYD organizer told me. 

“Who gets included, who doesn’t? For example, there are loads of Puerto Ricans here, but Puerto Rico isn’t a country. You’d think there was no harm in including them, but then what if Scotland and Wales ask to be included as well? Do we include Kosovo? Nagorno-Karabakh?”

There was also the issue of who would carry the flags, since for some countries there was a serious risk of pilgrims being recognized and suffering persecution back home if they happened to appear on broadcasts. 

In the end, it was the Vatican that called the shots and decided what flags would or would not be represented. 

China was conspicuous by its absence, but so was Taiwan, even while pilgrims from both are present in Lisbon. 

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Experiencing the universal Church

One flag prominent in the park — but definitely not in the procession — was the South Vietnamese flag, held aloft by a group of Vietnamese-Americans from California. 

I asked if they had been with the Vietnamese delegation. 

“Yes, we had a Rise Up [Catechism] session with them. We don’t all speak Vietnamese, but some of us do, especially the older ones. We share the same faith, but we are a little bit different. These are all American-born kids, whereas they are a little more Vietnamese. But that's what this does, it connects us, based on faith,” said Thanh Nguyen, who is in her fifties. 

Vietnamese-American pilgrims from California in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Younger Minh Nguyen, who was holding a large American flag, highlighted “the overall feeling of so many people being here, which is really inspiring,” though he admitted that he had done a lot of walking over the past few days.

Nearby, a group from St. Lucia posed for a picture, and teasingly told a friend from St. Vincent and the Grenadines that her flag was not welcome. Christa St. Ange explained, however, that there is no real rivalry between them outside of sport. 

The group has been traveling for several days, but she said everything has been going well. 

“It is a pilgrimage, and some parts are rough, and they did prepare us for that beforehand. But the experience on a whole, being in Portugal, and especially the people I’m with, is awesome.”

Pilgrims from St. Lucia and St. Vincent and Grenadines. Filipe D’Avillez.

My attention is drawn to a group of Australians and Samoans. 

Luke Jude Robinson, from Australia, had religious tattoos on his forearms, and told me that being in Portugal has really opened his eyes to the universality of the Church. 

“In Australia, I didn’t know how big the Church was. Coming to this event brings out the whole world, shows you how big this Church is, and how young people are really enjoying it as well.”

His Samoan friend, Sefilino Falaniko, agreed: “It’s amazing, it’s part of being a Catholic, seeing this many countries and cultures, and for the young to be together, it’s so amazing, I’m so happy.” 

Australia’s Luke Jude Robinson shows his tattoos. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Tight security

Thursday also marked a serious change in the terms of the security at the venue. After a relatively lax attitude during the opening Mass, people arriving at the welcoming ceremony found themselves confounded by very strict barriers, and individual searches. As I was let through the barrier with a few other journalists, an officer told his subordinates that our searches should “not be too invasive.” I shudder to think who was subjected to “very invasive” searches, and why.

It’s understandable that nobody wanted to take risks, but the problem was a general lack of coordination and communication between police, the private security firms, and the WYD volunteer safety team, which made “I’m sick of getting blocked” one of the refrains of the day. 

Police also swept the venue twice before opening the gates, and a cousin of mine lamented that though she works in a high-rise building near the park she would not be able to go on to the roof to get a better view of the Pope, because she didn’t want to startle the police snipers who had taken position up there. 

The police also reported that they had intercepted several drones spotted flying near or over the park and the nunciature, where the pope sleeps, and questioned some of the people operating them. I was surprised to see a dear friend and drone enthusiast being led away by police on the television. Turns out his drone’s software had not been updated, and so was not registering the nunciature, which is near his own house, as a no-fly zone. Everything got cleared up in the end, fortunately. 

A pilgrim takes a rest from the heat in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.


Overcrowded transports, and generally not being familiar with the city, means that for many pilgrims the WYD experience is very much about arriving late to pretty much everything. 

But there is another type of latecomer that can be much more difficult to accommodate. 

Those connected to the organization say they have been overwhelmed by requests from friends, family, distant acquaintances, or even public figures to get them passes to the papal events, or, in the best of cases, saying that they want to volunteer and help out. 

“Now that they see the general excitement and enthusiasm, suddenly everybody wants to be a part of this. We feel like asking them where they were two years ago, when we were asking for volunteers,” said one of the organizers. 

The push for passes is also a warning that organizers and the civil authorities should heed carefully. A lot of local people who had planned to leave Lisbon, or just stay indoors during WYD, have now been caught up in the excitement, and are now eager to stick around and participate. 

That might mean that the crowd for the final Mass could exceed even the highest predictions of 1.5 million people.

The burial of Maria Lucília Dias in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Maria Lucília Dias

Despite all the hustle and excitement in Lisbon these days, normal life goes on. Not even the massive amount of youngsters in the streets has the power to offset the loneliness that affects so many people, especially the elderly, in modern Western cities.

On Thursday morning, in Lisbon’s largest cemetery, a deacon and a lone volunteer celebrated the exequial rites for a recently deceased person, who lived and died alone. 

The volunteers of the Irmandade de São Roque [Fraternity of St. Roche] are dedicated to performing the act of mercy of burying the dead, namely those whose bodies are not claimed by family or friends. 

Later that afternoon Pope Francis would tell the pilgrims of WYD that God calls them by the name. In the cemetery, a name was all the deacon and the volunteer had to go on — no idea of age or cause of death. Even the date of death was uncertain, as bodies in those circumstances are kept in storage, sometimes for months, in case somebody comes to claim them. 

During this week of WYD, the fraternity has had some trouble finding volunteers for the eight burials that were scheduled. 

The volunteer and the deacon called Maria Lucília Dias by name as she was committed to the earth, but they will soon forget it. As the pope stressed, God will not. 

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