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‘There’s no Plan B, only Plan F’ — Inside the countdown to World Youth Day

World Youth Day will take place in Lisbon from August 1-6. It is, by far, the largest single event ever organised in Portugal, let alone in Lisbon. The final open-air mass, presided over by Pope Francis, is expected to draw a crowd of over 1 million people to Tejo Park. 

So far, the organizers says they are meeting all their deadlines, but with only weeks to go before the pilgrims start streaming in, there are still logistical problems to address — and a nagging fear that Pope Francis’ health could decline, preventing him from traveling. 


The Pope’s recent surgery raised alarms, but Lisbon’s auxiliary bishop Américo Aguiar, who is organizing the event, insisted that the Pope will be in Lisbon as expected, saying “there is no Plan B, only Plan F”. 

Rosa Pedroso Lima, spokeswoman for WYD Lisbon, points out that the official schedule for the Pope’s visit to Portugal was published on the same day doctors told him he had to have an operation, which she takes as a sign that the Vatican was confident he would recover in time, and may even have planned for the operation to be done sooner, rather than later, to make sure he was fit to travel by August. 

A priest working in Rome, who has access to first-hand information about the organization of WYD but asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak about the event, assured The Pillar that the Pope is enthused with the upcoming trip, which will be his second to Portugal. 

“I was with him recently and I saw how he is personally involved in the preparation, and giving clear instructions on what he does and does not want to do. If you look at the schedule, it is pretty intense, but he wanted it that way. He’s not coming as a tourist, he wants to be with the people”. 

The priest also pointed out that this trip comes on the heels of some of Francis’ most complicated journeys, namely to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan. Compared to those, the logistics and safety concerns of a trip to Lisbon are not weighing heavily on the minds of his staff. 

In fact, members of the WYD staff have remarked that the Vatican delegates have shown themselves to be very satisfied with the way things are progressing in Lisbon, unlike some of the local workers and volunteers, who have been showing signs of discouragement. Rosa Lima believes this is only natural: 

“There is always some anxiety when you are working for an historic event. I have followed all the papal visits to Portugal since John Paul II, as a journalist, and the same thing happened before all of them, a lot of alarm about what might go wrong”, she said. 

The priest in Rome says that this is a common issue with other World Youth Days. “In Germany, in 2005, the team that started organizing the event was not the team that finished, and the same happened in Spain in 2011. People get worn out, and personal relations break down. That’s normal.”

Trains, planes and 600 thousand pilgrims

One of the major difficulties with any World Youth Day is trying to estimate how many people are going to show up. There is an official registration process, of course, but many pilgrims only sign up at the last minute, or simply appear without having filled in any paperwork. 

Portuguese and Spanish pilgrims, for example, might just decide to travel to Lisbon for main events, therefore not requiring food or lodging, and an Eastern European ambassador in Portugal recently confided to The Pillar that while only 1,000 people had officially signed up from his country he expected at least 3,000 to make the trip. 

Registration is done in three phases. Though 600,000 people put down their names in the first phase of the process, only 448,000 carried over to the second, and as of mid-June the number of pilgrims who were fully registered and paid-up stood at 254,000. This number could still swell considerably as other pilgrims complete their registration later.

Portuguese pilgrims are expected to be the largest contingent at WYD but, for obvious reasons, many of these did not register. That makes the Spanish, with over 52,000 registrations, the largest group according to official figures, followed by 45,000 Italians and 36,000 French. At the moment around 11,500 US pilgrims are enrolled. 

Though pilgrims will be staying all over the Patriarchate of Lisbon, as well in the Dioceses of Santarém, immediately to the north, and of Setúbal, across the river to the south, most activities will be concentrated in the city of Lisbon proper, which has a population of close to 550,000 people. That means that even with the most conservative estimates, the city’s population will be double what it usually is during the main events, at least. 

The question on everybody’s mind is: will infrastructure and logistics cope?

The Government is still working on a mobility plan, which is one of the few aspects of preparation running behind schedule, but the priest in Rome says that this is not a major concern. 

“Things are what they are. Lisbon has a small airport, yes, that’s a problem; yes, Lisbon’s population could triple, and this is going to cause difficulties in terms of transports; we’re still not sure how everyone will be getting out of Tejo Park on the last day; will the volunteers make it to their meeting with the Pope?” 

“But, he said, “this is par for the course in any WYD. Transport is always an issue. Does that spell disaster for the WYD? Of course not. We’re not talking about a Metallica concert, people here are traveling with a different spirit, and logistical hiccups are treated as just that. If a group of pilgrims runs into a delay, what will they do? They’ll sit on the floor and sing.”

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Digital dangers?

A novelty of this edition of WYD is that it aims to be as sustainable as possible, and part of that effort includes cutting down on use of paper. This year, for the first time, the official booklet will be fully digital, and most interactions between the organization and the pilgrims take place through an app, including food vouchers, guides and schedules. 

The obvious question is, what if the app goes haywire? 

A member of the team working on the development of the app, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that there is nothing to worry about. 

“First of all, we don’t want people to be spending all their time on their phone. We want people to experience WYD, to live it, not to see it through a screen. So the app is designed to make things easier for the pilgrims, but not to keep them distracted or entertained,” they said.

“Secondly, we know that it isn’t going to work 100%, and we’re prepared for that. We can’t expect everybody to have a smartphone, we can’t expect people to be out and about all day and never run out of battery, and we know that some people may not have internet service, so we have backups for things like food vouchers. This is also why the app is designed to work offline.”

Hacking is not a concern either, since pilgrims are not required to provide any personal information when creating an account, and all interactions take place with groups, rather than individuals.

The Rome-based priest is even more pragmatic. “The Vatican is not worried about the app,” he said. “The Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life has been accompanying the development.” 

“Will it work? I don’t know. Maybe on some phones and not on others, maybe on some operating systems and not on others. But I can say one thing: even if it doesn’t work, nobody is going to die, nobody is going to go hungry.”

Organizers are also confident that nobody is going to have to sleep in the street, even though its campaign to get enough volunteer families to host up to 100,000 pilgrims came up very short. 

The numbers show that the most active parishes in and around Lisbon, with energetic priests who are deeply committed to the success of the event, actually did quite well, but the numbers for some parishes are very low — just two months before the start of WYD the very affluent and central parish of Santos had only 11 host families signed up. 

The situation is unfortunate, said Rosa Lima, but not a problem per se: “At this moment there is no concern with lodging. As of today, 183,000 pilgrims requested lodging. We have already identified 480,000 sleeping spaces, even if only 21,000 of these are with the 6300 families that came forward.”

“We always said that having the pilgrims stay with families is a unique experience for both. But the fact is that most of the pilgrims prefer to stay with their groups in larger spaces, like sports halls and schools,” she added. 

Of greater concern is the lack of volunteers in general, though some of those who are working for WYD complained to The Pillar that the organizers, in a bid to cut costs, are relying too heavily on volunteer work instead of paying professionals. This could reflect badly on issues such as the quality of translations, or technical support, they said. 

State support

With a history of some financial black holes in past WYD editions, bishop Américo Aguiar has insisted on full financial transparency. A deficit is not expected, and if there happens to be a surplus it will be donated to charities that work with young people. 

This kind of commitment is only possible, though, because a significant portion of the cost is being borne by the Portuguese state, either at a central level, or through the city authorities directly involved. Though some questioned the appropriateness of a secular state supporting a major Catholic event, the authorities have insisted that it is in the country’s interest that things should go well, and that they see this as an investment, since the financial return overall is expected to far outweigh the costs. 

The city of Lisbon, for example, is putting a lot of money into developing Tejo Park, which will host the final mass, including paying for the stage which will be used as an altar. There was a scandal when it was announced that the cost of the stage was over four million euros, but Bishop Aguiar reacted swiftly, saying that even though this was not a Church expense, it was too steep. WYD and city hall representatives met and cut the project down to size, reducing the cost to 2.9 million. 

But, as Lisbon mayor Carlos Moedas has pointed out, when the last of the pilgrims has gone, the city will still be left with a large and modern riverside park covering what used to be a landfill, suitable for live concerts and music festivals.

The government’s enthusiasm and commitment to make the event work have always been a crucial part of WYD Lisbon. In fact, according to Rosa Lima, that is what helped secure the Vatican’s choice of Lisbon in the first place. 

More recently, when the organising committee invited government representatives to meet with a visiting group of Vatican delegates, led by the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Prime Minister made a point of being present, along with three ministers. 

Bishop Aguiar’s past as local councilor for the Socialist Party in the northern city of Matosinhos, before a late vocation led him to the seminary, has certainly been useful in forging fruitful relations with the current socialist government.

In recent weeks, some unions have also threatened strikes to coincide with WYD, which would obviously make life very difficult for organizers. But again, Bishop Aguiar’s political background may be key in navigating those waters. 

“This event is an opportunity for different groups to air their grievances, and to test the Government’s resolve,” Rosa Lima said. “However, I should point out that all the different organizations we have invited to visit our headquarters have quickly accepted, and have committed to doing all they can to make sure things go smoothly.” 

“This includes the leaders of the two main trade union federations, who made it clear that they are with us. As the date draws closer, most Portuguese people realize that this is an enormous event, and that it can only happen if we all pull in the same direction,” she said. 

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Break in case of emergency

A cartoon published in the 90s, purporting to illustrate the main characteristics of different European nations, showed a Portuguese man sitting inside a glass dome, where he could not touch or ruin anything. However, the dome had a sign on it, saying “break in case of emergency.” 

The implication was that when you are in a mess, you can count on the Portuguese to improvise and get you out of it. There is even a word for this Portuguese trait, “desenrascanço”, which “Cracked” – a website dedicated to making viral listicles – once called the number one “foreign word that the English language needs,” describing it as “the art of slapping together a solution to a problem at the last minute, with no advanced planning, and no resources.” 

Proud as the Portuguese may be of their improvisational abilities, when it comes to major events the country actually has a good reputation for careful planning and good execution. The World’s Fair in 1998 was a smashing success, and the European Football Championship in 2004 also went off without a hitch. 

Rosa Lima laughed when The Pillar asked if she is counting on a dose desenrascanço for the WYD to go well. “We are counting on all the qualities of the Portuguese people, and that one is welcome as well, but we’re not relying on it as a main factor!” 

“Improvisation only works if there is a lot of planning, organization, and work behind it,” she said. “But if there are glitches, as there surely will be, I am sure we will be able to solve them”. 

Meanwhile the organizing committee continues to prepare for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from at least 151 countries, still hoping to fulfill Lisbon Patriarch Manuel Clemente’s dream of having every nation represented.

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