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Badly kept secrets, ‘slipping bags,’ and looking down on people

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:

One of the most impressive events at World Youth Day is the evening vigil. From the early hours, hordes of pilgrims begin to converge on one point, carrying rucksacks, mattresses, and sleeping bags, walking miles upon miles to get to the designated sector of the massive field where the vigil and the final Mass will be held. They walk in big groups, carrying flags, looking like the world’s most unlikely armies. 

Drones spell out the words ‘Rise up’ at the World Youth Day vigil in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 6, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

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By the time Pope Francis arrived Saturday evening, 1.5 million people were already installed in the Tejo Park, which by all accounts is going to be renamed Pope Francis Park when WYD finishes. 

The pope entered the venue at around 8:30 p.m. Surprisingly, he was taken straight to the stage, rather than zig-zagging through the massive crowd, which would have allowed more people to see him up close.

The pope then listened to two testimonies, the first from a Portuguese priest who discovered his vocation after an almost fatal car accident. 

“When I woke up in the hospital and realized how serious a condition I was in, it dawned on me that my life had not been worth living,” he said. 

The second was by a young woman from northern Mozambique, who survived an attack on her village by Islamist insurgents.

Francis then spoke, asking the gathered pilgrims: “Do you think that people who make big mistakes, serious sins, are finished? No. They can rise up again. Mountain climbers have a great saying, that when it comes to climbing, the problem isn’t falling, it’s staying down.”

“The only time we should look down on somebody,” he added, improvising, while his written speech lay in his lap, “is when we are helping them back on their feet.”

The improvised talk was interactive, but quite short. It was followed by a period of Adoration. The speed and intensity with which 1.5 million rowdy and cheering young Catholics fell into a deep and reverential silence was breathtaking and very moving. 

I was commenting on a Portuguese radio station at the time, and the reporter in the field said that for a few moments she felt as if she were completely alone.

Moments like those will certainly stay with the pilgrims for a long time.

Zimbabwean pilgrims shelter from the heat at Tejo Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 5, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.


No prayer for peace

Francis began Saturday traveling to the Marian shrine of Fátima. There were high expectations for this visit, as the pope was supposed to recite a prayer for peace which would include an explicit reference to the war in Ukraine. 

But Francis opted not to read his prepared speech and once again spoke off the cuff. It is still not clear if he did so because he had been experiencing difficulties with his eyesight, which no doubt was made worse by his heavy schedule, or if he saw that a good part of his audience in the Chapel of the Apparitions was composed of disabled children and thought that making them sit through a written speech would be too much to ask. 

He told those gathered in Fátima — an estimated 200,000 people — that the Chapel of the Apparitions was a good example of what the Church should be like: “It has no doors. The Church should have no doors, so that everybody can come inside.”

He did not, however, make any references to Ukraine, and did not read the prepared prayer. Afterward, he returned to Lisbon by helicopter, for his habitual closed-door meeting with the Jesuits, before heading to the vigil. 

Sludge around the water stations at Parque Tejo in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 5, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

‘If you think this is hot, you should see hell’ 

After I finally made it into the venue, having been comfortably driven to the door in a press shuttle, and got a good look at the endless crowds of people already present, with more still on their way, my first thought was that nobody in their right mind would commit to putting something like this together. 

It’s utter madness, but impressively inspiring and even beautiful in a way that is only possible with just the right mix of planning and chaos. 

The planning had been better than many had expected, although, as I mentioned in a previous article, Portugal has a good reputation for staging large-scale events successfully. 

Strolling around the venue, I saw no signs of overcrowding. Services were working and the only significant difficulty seemed to be that the ground around the many water stations was quickly turning into sludge. 

And there was the heat, of course: Intense, oppressive heat made worse by the wind that swept up dust, hats, and the umbrellas people had brought for shade. With temperatures reaching 97 F, there was a lot of concern about heatstroke and dehydration, and every sector of the field where pilgrims gathered was equipped with a tent where people could go if they were in too much discomfort. 

Nonetheless, the emergency health services said they were up to their necks in work. One pilgrim held up a sign saying: “If you think this is hot, you should see hell.” 

Not even the heat could detract from the electrifying atmosphere and joy in the crowds, though. Having spoken to so many young people about what impact this WYD was having on their faith, I also wanted to know how it was affecting the legions of priests and religious who were accompanying them. 

“For us, it’s wonderful, because it shows that the Church has many charisms and vocations,” said Br. Luís Valente, of the Little Brothers of St. Francis of Assisi. 

I asked if he was tired after so many days looking after his group of pilgrims, but he answered that “being tired is part of it, and it strengthens the faith.” 

“We manifest our faith through our fatigue. Christ didn’t give up either,” he commented.

In a different sector, I found the Spanish priest Fr. Fernando Lopez de Rivera, who told me that for him, “it has the effect of showing us that a lot of people draw close to God, and many come to us, clergy, to ask us for advice.” 

“From a personal point of view, of course, to be with so many young people, shows us that despite everything, faith is present,” he reflected. 

Fr. Fernando told me that this was his fourth WYD and the experience of previous ones had been important in discerning his vocation. 

A woman dances at the special gathering for people with disabilities at St. Francis House in Loures. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.


When I first entered the venue, I saw that there was a large area, forming a semi-circle around the stage, reserved for VIPs, with black chairs laid out. I was not the only one to find this rather shocking, since it created a larger gap between the pope and the regular pilgrims. 

But I soon found out that one part of the VIP section was reserved for those who had traveled from furthest away, while another section was reserved for thousands of pilgrims with disabilities. 

Seven hundred young people with physical or intellectual disabilities had spent the past few days at a gathering in the St. Francis Home in Loures, outside Lisbon, which offered programming designed specifically for them.

Opening procession for mass at the gathering for pilgrims with disabilities at St. Francis House in Loures, Portugal. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

There was another section reserved for immediate family members of the volunteers who had spent the past months working hard to make all this happen, often at great cost. Finally, of course, there was a section for the other VIPs — government leaders and ecclesiastical officials.

The stage at Tejo Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 5, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

The secret’s out: It’s South Korea

[Ed. note: This World Youth Day diary was composed before the Holy See confirmed that World Youth Day will take place in Seoul in 2027.]

As World Youth Day neared its end, people wondered where the next edition would be held. In my experience, the location of the next World Youth Day is usually the worst-kept secret in the world. It is supposed to only be announced by the pope at the closing Mass, but few people are surprised. 

When I was in Cologne as a pilgrim in 2005, my group arrived late for the opening Mass and ended up outside of the stadium where it was held. We were next to an Australian group, who casually told us that the next edition would be in their home country. Sure enough, that’s what happened. 

And in the previous edition, in Panama, we Portuguese pilgrims all knew that Portugal would be announced as the next host country, which made President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s broadcast saying “We did it! Portugal, Lisbon, we hoped, we dreamed, we did it, victory!” sound to many ears way too overexcited. 

Before the pope announced that the next World Youth Day would take place in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, in 2027, I asked Joohyun Lee, a volunteer who was in charge of the South Korean language WYD social media accounts, about the rumor that it would be in his homeland. He seemed very hopeful. 

“I’m so excited. I am awaiting next World Youth Day in Seoul, but I still don’t know for sure. I pray to Our Lord. Many Korean people are hoping for it to be in Seoul,” he told me. 

Organizers should be careful, though. The World Scout  Jamboree, a massive gathering of scouts from all over the world that takes place every four years is being held in South Korea, as you read this. But a horrific heatwave is wreaking havoc, to the point that many delegations have asked for the whole thing to be canceled so that they can just go home. 

Then again, there is no rule that WYD has to take place in July and August. Panama was in January, so there might be flexibility there as well.

Tejo Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 5, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Carbon footprint revisited

Before WYD began I wrote a report for The Pillar about the controversy surrounding this edition’s aim to be the greenest yet. One of the measures taken by the organization was the inclusion of a carbon footprint calculator for pilgrims to see how much they were contributing to global warming by traveling to Lisbon. 

In my article, I interviewed a Catholic expert on sustainability who derided the calculator, saying that it didn’t make sense, nor was it fair, to shame pilgrims for their carbon footprints.

Sylvester Francis Alonz is from Palau, Micronesia. It took him three days and five flights to get to Lisbon, traveling almost 9,000 miles. So I asked him if this was something that bothered him. 

“Of course! The reality of the impact on the planet is a daily factor for us,” he said. “We are very well aware. We took a second to sit down and think how we could be present here, and how could we get that message across.”

Sylvester pointed to “rising sea levels, more frequent cyclones, and other conditions that risk making the islands unlivable” as justifications for his concern about his own contribution to global warming. 

“I am only 25, and I am asking myself if I can continue to live where I am from,” he said. 

He added: “I had to think about the flights we had to take to get here, how far we had to go, how much waste we produced on the way. But at the end of the day, if I didn’t come here, then we’re not present, and so we are not heard or even seen.” 

Now that he was in Lisbon, he was glad he had come. 

“Besides the visibility of being here, I love the unity, meeting people from around the world and knowing that we are gathered for a common cause, united by faith, united by spirit,” he said.

He believed that WYD was having an impact on the world, “even at a time when things look bleak, with war, and climate change.” He also highlighted the benefits of being able to “meet young people my age, and from different experiences, and to have that unity, and to say we are here for a cause, an act of service, but also just enjoying the possibility of being here with the Holy Father, and share experiences.” 

A German pilgrim holds a disability pride flag. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez. 

Automatic translator 1, English 0

The night before the closing Mass, pilgrims are expected to sleep out in the open. 

During the day, the official WYD app kept sending out notifications, asking people to remember to take plenty of water, sunscreen and to pick up their food on the way.

In one of the notifications, English pilgrims were told to remember to “brings slipping bags.”

This could have been dismissed as just a casual slip-up by a non-native speaker, but unfortunately it was part of a pattern.

Bad translations, at least into English, became a staple of WYD. Signs in public buses showed one girl telling pilgrims: “I am with you for the inclusion.” Of what, or whom? It didn’t say. 

The English version of the interreligious page on the website was called “Dialogue interfaith” for a while, until it was eventually corrected, and the official “Commitment letter” on sustainability included passages such as: 

“The Holy Father has challenged us to build an event of youth, an event of strength. It is with this fresh and creative mind, as well as clearheaded and responsibility, that we look at WYD Lisbon 2023. We will host unprecedented event August 2023. It is vital that we learn from past editions while fostering creativity and innovation. WYD Lisbon 2023 will be attended by Pope Francis’ encyclicals Laudato si’ e Fratelli Tutti, and by the apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit.”

Portuguese people, especially the younger generations, generally speak good English, but that’s not enough to ensure reliable and thorough translations. The problem is that to guarantee those on such a scale, the organization would have to pay, and early on it was decided to rely on volunteer translators. This was apparently the result. 

It was not enough to ruin the experience for any English speakers, but it was enough to make the whole operation — which otherwise has been going quite well — seem to some pilgrims unprofessional, which is a shame.  

Perhaps Seoul will be better prepared on that front.

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