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DJ priests, a possible WYD miracle, and waves of love

As World Youth Day wraps up in Lisbon, Portugal, The Pillar’s WYD correspondent, Filipe d’Avillez, brings you his final daily news diary:

World Youth Day 2023 is over. And to be honest, it’s hard to imagine that it could have gone any better than it did. The pope said as much, suggesting that this was the best-organized edition yet.

The sun rises over the Tagus on the day of World Youth Day’s closing Mass. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez.

After Saturday’s vigil, around one and a half million people spent the night in the open, waiting for Pope Francis to return in the morning for the closing Mass

As part of the press corps, I had planned to go home and get a few hours’ sleep in a comfortable bed. But caught up in the enthusiasm, I decided to stay and spend the night in the open with my wife and the older kids. 

Of course, I had not come prepared, so after the searing heat of the day, I was actually quite cold at night. 

The loudspeakers came into action at around 6:30 a.m., just in time to see the sun rise over the Tagus River in front of us. 

After some minutes of rather pleasant music to get people on their feet and in a good mood, many people were stunned by the sudden change to electronic beats and remixes of “Hallelujah,” the WYD anthem, and “Jerusalema” by Master KG, provided by Fr. Guilherme Peixoto, also known as the DJ Priest, from Portugal’s Archdiocese of Braga.

I know what you’re thinking: “A DJ priest? Cringe!” But he was actually surprisingly good, or even “really awesome,” according to the Zimbabwean pilgrims I chatted to. And he certainly got people on their feet and into party mode. 

Pope Francis arrived soon after 8 a.m., and this time he did the rounds, going past several sectors so that the masses of pilgrims could get a closer look. 

In his homily, and despite a few improvisations, he mostly kept to the text, and pointed out parallels between the Transfiguration and what the pilgrims were experiencing at that moment. 

“Through this brilliant burst of light, Jesus prepares the disciples for the dark night they will have to endure; this overwhelming experience of light would help them to endure the dark hours of Gethsemane and Calvary,” he said. 

After Mass, during the Angelus prayer, he said: “I want to say to you: hold fast to the memory of these days, remembering the best moments. Then, when the inevitable times of fatigue and discouragement come, and perhaps the temptation to give up or close in on yourselves, relive the experiences and the graces of these days.”

This is, of course, one of the main questions that arises with every big religious event (and they don’t get much bigger than a WYD). What will the fruits of this gathering be, both for pilgrims and for the countries where they take place?

I spoke to Charles Mercier, a French historian who has written a book on World Youth Days. He told me that the effects on organizing countries have not been sufficient to stop the advance of secularization and that with regard to pilgrims, there were important variables to consider. 

“The people who really prepare their presence, from a spiritual point of view, and then live WYD intensely, report significant effects on their lives after the event,” he said. “However, for the people who are caught up in the moment and participate with no previous preparation, the effect is usually short-lived.”

Having spoken with so many pilgrims, I feel that another factor is the importance that this type of experience has for people who live in places or situations where they are in a small minority and possibly marginalized. 

The consolation and enthusiasm that they gain from understanding they are part of a universal Church, and are appreciated and valued by millions, is very encouraging, and several of them told me as much. 

Zimbabwean pilgrims wearing traditional headdresses wait for the pope to arrive to celebrate the final Mass. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez.

Surfing the wave of love

The final event of WYD was Pope Francis’ meeting with volunteers in Algés. I wrote previously that perhaps the biggest test for the logistics team would be to get the volunteers from the venue of the final Mass to Algés, with over a million other people clogging the roads. But even that was impeccably well organized, and police helped to escort buses back and forth.

For the volunteers, the final event meant another two or three hours in the sun with no shade. I saw several people being led out by medics after feeling ill from the heat. But there does not seem to have been anything serious to report. 

In his final speech to the volunteers, Pope Francis referred to Nazaré, the Portuguese beach that holds the record for the biggest wave ever surfed, at 86 feet. 

“During these days you too faced a real and unique wave, not made of water, but of youths, youths like you, who traveled to this city,” he said. “But with the help of God, and with much generosity and mutual support, you rode this great wave. See how brave you are!”

“I want to ask you to continue like this, continue to ride the waves of love, waves of charity. Be ‘surfers of love,’” the pope said.

He then took the main organizers by the hand and thanked them profusely for all they had done, before heading to the airport, and back to Rome.

Watching the 25,000 exhausted yet happy pilgrims stream out of the Algés venue, I wondered if their local parishes and dioceses would have the wisdom to take advantage of their newfound enthusiasm, or if they would be frustrated to encounter the same old systems and obstacles to their involvement. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Portuguese Church; it cannot be wasted.

Albanian pilgrims in Tejo Park. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez.

A WYD miracle?

You’d think that having things go so well was miracle enough, but according to COPE, a respected Spanish Catholic media group, a 16-year-old Spanish girl has reported that she was miraculously cured during a Mass after the pope’s visit to Fátima. 

The girl, who was not named in the online article, had lost almost 95% of her eyesight just over two years ago. Before traveling to Lisbon, she asked friends and family to pray a novena with her to Our Lady of the Snows, whose feast day coincided with the pope’s Aug. 5 visit to Fatima

“I was very nervous when waiting for Communion, and when I sat back down after receiving, I started to cry,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to open my eyes, but when I did, I could see, I could see perfectly. I could see the altar, the tabernacle. I had a friend beside me, and I could see her perfectly as well.”

I asked the WYD press office, but it had not heard about the case and therefore did not have any comment.

Naturally, the Church will approach the matter with the usual caution, but if a medical examination does reveal an inexplicable cure, we could be looking at a WYD miracle. 

Communion controversies

As Ed and JD pointed out in their latest Pillar Podcast, big outdoor Masses are always subject to intense debate. 

One of the main points of contention is the respect due to the Eucharist. Some people have been asking if, with so many priests around, it was really necessary to have extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. 

What that does not take into account, though, is that most of the priests were traveling with groups of pilgrims, which meant that it would not have been possible, from a practical viewpoint, to prep them, train them, and tell them where to go and how to proceed, whereas the extraordinary ministers had been preparing for months. 

Also, the vast majority of priests had credentials allowing them to be in a specific sector, near the altar, so they could concelebrate. It would probably have taken them more than an hour just to get to some of the furthest points of the park, having to carry consecrated hosts with them along the way.

Instead, as happened in the opening Mass, extraordinary ministers were already spread out through the ground, and distributed Communion with pre-consecrated hosts. As far as I could tell, Communion was distributed efficiently and quite swiftly. 

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A South Korean pilgrim in traditional dress. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez.

Seoul 2027

When the closing Mass ended, the pope prayed the Angelus and, as expected, announced that the next WYD would be in South Korea. 

As 2025 is a Jubilee year, with special events planned for Rome, the Seoul WYD will be held in 2027.

South Korea is an interesting choice. It takes WYD back to Asia for the first time since Manila in 1995, which still holds the record for the largest attendance at a final Mass, with over four million pilgrims. 

Many would have liked to see a first for Africa, but there are serious doubts about the ability of any African country to host an event of this size safely.

South Korea also stands out for other reasons. Besides the obvious factor of being in a tense region, the Korean Church is one of the few in Asia that does not trace its roots to missionary activity, but rather the conversion of a group of Koreans who reached Christianity through intellectual pursuit and reading works of theology introduced via China. 

Though a minority religion, Christianity is vibrant and very much alive in South Korea. Seminaries are full and thousands enter the Church every year.   

Stop the press! Catholics are normal people

There was some surprise this week when a leading Portuguese paper published a special about WYD, with “shocking” images of young WYD pilgrims drinking beer and generally having a good time. 

Some of them had obviously drunk a bit too much and were messing around in a fountain, in their shorts, but nothing very worrying seemed to be going on. 

For much of the secular elite, including in the press, the realization that Catholic youths are, well, just like regular kids has been a bit difficult to digest. 

The journalists even got a group of Spanish girls sitting at a table drinking beers to admit that “nobody follows their values without straying from them a little bit.” 

“We’re humans, not robots, and not God,” they said. “The only one who has never committed a sin is God himself, everybody else is doomed to fail in life. What is important is that you have clear ideals, so that you can recognize when things are going wrong, and rectify them.”

Sounds like a pretty orthodox Catholic view of humanity to me. 

What did make an impact on me throughout this WYD was the great variety of participants I saw. There were priests in long black cassocks and priests walking around in shorts and flip-flops, girls wearing mantillas and girls dressed in shorts and crop tops to cope with the heat. 

At a time when the Church is increasingly polarized, it was refreshing to see that all these people were gathered in the same place, for the same reason, worshiping together.

I was not the only one to be impressed. On Sunday morning, I got a text from Helena Vilaça, a sociologist of religion who lives in Porto. 

“As you know I am a Protestant Christian, but I have to give thanks to God for WYD,” she wrote. “From a sociological perspective, it is unbelievable that in such a significantly secularized country, an event such as this should have taken place peacefully, with the full support of the political power. The more radical secularists were not amused, but as Christians we repay hate with love.”

Friends lift Lourenço Abreu’s wheelchair so that he can better see the Pope during the final Mass. Credit: social media.


When I wrote the guide for WYD pilgrims, the first tip I included was that Portugal is not Spain, and the Portuguese don’t speak Spanish. But walking around Lisbon these past days, you’d have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. The Spanish contingent was enormous and seemed to be everywhere. 

When the article was published, I could not help laughing that the first comment was a tongue-in-cheek “gracias.” The Portuguese word is “obrigado”, and it was prominent in Pope Francis’ speeches on Sunday. 

“There is an expression that we have heard frequently during these days: ‘thank you’, or rather, ‘obrigado.’ The Patriarch of Lisbon just told us something important: that obrigado not only conveys a sense of gratitude for what we have received but also the desire to give in return,” the pope said. An English equivalent would be “much obliged.”

Pope Francis then listed all the things he and the pilgrims were grateful for: 

“Before we go our separate ways, I too would like to say obrigado. First of all, to Cardinal Clemente, and with him to the Church and the entire Portuguese people!” 

“Obrigado to the President of the Republic [Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa], who has accompanied us during the events of these days; to the national and local institutions for their support and assistance; to the bishops, priests, consecrated men and women and the lay faithful.” 

“Obrigado also to Lisbon, which these young people will always remember as a ‘fraternal home’ and ‘city of dreams’! I express deep gratitude also to Cardinal Farrell and those who prepared this World Youth Day, as well as to those who accompanied these days with prayer.” 

“Obrigado to the volunteers, whom we all applaud for their great service. Our thanks must go particularly to those who watched over World Youth Day from above, namely the patron saints of the event: especially John Paul II, who brought these World Youth Days to life.”

The reference to John Paul II was met with resounding applause, which was remarkable, especially because the current WYD pilgrims are not John Paul II’s generation. 

Those of us who, to quote a priest friend, “have been young for a while longer” were moved by this show of emotion for the pope who had such a great impact on our lives. Interestingly, the only comparable applause came when the pope referenced the suffering of the Ukrainian people.


World Youth Day is finally over. Pilgrims are heading home, life is going back to normal, leaving us with mixed feelings of relief and emptiness. 

To those of you who were here and made Lisbon the center of the Catholic world for a week, and to all of you who read these diaries and encouraged us with comments and friendly messages, muito, muito obrigado! 

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