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WYD: Bringing Arabs together, and keeping Russians and Ukrainians apart

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 around 200,000 people attended the day of the opening Mass, and 500,000 were present for the pope’s welcoming ceremony, at least 800,000 crammed into the Eduardo VII Park and the avenues around it, braving the summer heat, to participate in World Youth Day’s Stations of the Cross.

Salvador Seixas, who performed the WYD anthem on the main stage, takes a selfie with fans. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

The meditations centered on problems that youth typically face, such as uncertainty about the future, issues with mental health, and the scourges of drugs, pornography, and alcohol, but also conflict and a lack of religious freedom. Which is to say, many of the things that bring children and youths to their knees. 

Three times, however, one for each of Jesus’ falls, the meditations had Christ telling the youth: “I fall that you might rise up with me.” And in his own speech, Pope Francis told the pilgrims that Jesus “desires to open up the windows of your soul, to let in the fullness of his life and love; he desires to dry your secret tears by his tender love, to relieve your loneliness by his closeness and your fears by his consolation; he desires to lift the oppressive burdens you carry in your heart and to heal the wounds of your sins.”

During the Way of the Cross, a few videos were played with testimonies of young people who had overcome difficulties in their lives, including one of a Spanish girl who had found Christ after struggling with despair, pain, and loneliness after having an abortion. She and the other two who gave their testimonies were present in the park as well.

Fittingly, the day had begun with Pope Francis’ visit to the Serafina parish center, which serves a poor Lisbon neighborhood. The pope began by listening to three short speeches by people who ran charities, including Fr. Francisco Crespo, the man behind the parish center, who The Pillar interviewed earlier in the week. 

The other two institutions represented were Acreditar, which provides lodging and support for the families of children with cancer, and Ajuda de Berço, which helps women with crisis pregnancies. 

Francis began to read a speech but then put it aside, claiming that he was having trouble reading and did not want to strain his eyes. He then spoke off the cuff for several minutes, telling those present that “charity is the starting point and the goal of the Christian path,” and that everyone, regardless of their limitations, is a gift.

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Diplomatic landmines

Lacking in the meditations for the Way of the Cross was any explicit reference to Ukraine. There were general references to the suffering caused by war, but no word about the conflict that currently has the world on edge.

At the past two Via Crucis observances on Good Friday in Rome, the Holy See insisted on including a symbolic gesture for peace in Ukraine. Both times that gesture included having a Ukrainian and a Russian do something together. Neither time was Ukraine in the least bit amused, and relations between the Vatican and Kyiv were strained as a result.

According to a source within the WYD organization, Rome had begun by insisting on having a similar gesture in this edition — though I don’t know if it wanted to place it in the Way of the Cross. The Ukrainians made it very clear that this time there would be diplomatic repercussions, and the local organizers, not wanting to have a dispute of that nature tarnish the event’s image, managed to dissuade the Holy See from making the same mistake thrice.

A compromise was reached: It included having Bishop Américo Aguiar, who headed the WYD task force, visit Ukraine shortly before the event, to show local Catholics that they had not been forgotten and are being missed.

Whether the decision to have Pope Francis hold a private audience for Ukrainian pilgrims, during which he prayed with them, was also part of the compromise, I do not know.

A U.S. group belonging to the Schoenstatt apostolate in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 4, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

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Arab unity

My day began on the other side of the city from Serafina. One of the perks of hosting an event like WYD is the chance to take part in varied liturgies, and I had heard that there would be a Coptic Catholic Divine Liturgy for Arab-speaking pilgrims on Friday.

On the bus there, I found a group of American girls who told me they had traveled to Lisbon as part of the Schoenstatt apostolate. Jacinta is originally from Washington, D.C., and wanted to visit Portugal especially to go to Fátima, because of her namesake, one of the three shepherd children who saw Our Lady in 1917.

Once she arrived, though, she was swept up by the enthusiasm. 

“I think it is really beautiful to see that there are all these different ways of worshiping God, but we're still all so united in our Catholic faith,” she said.

Arab Christian pilgrims celebrate in the streets. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

That would serve as a pretty good description of what I found in the hall where the pilgrims from the Middle East and North Africa had gathered to hear a catechism by the Coptic Catholic Bishop Thomas Habib. 

Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Palestinians all told me that even though they hailed from different countries and belonged to different rites, they felt as one.

“We are united by our culture, our traditions, even though there might be minor differences between what we believe and how we celebrate and pray,” said Jouzian Wahhab, who was born in Jordan, but moved to Canada as a young child.

“We have to be strong in our faith, as Christians, as Catholics, because that is what holds us together,” she said.

Being at WYD, Jouzian said, was a much-needed boost for her faith. 

“Our churches in Canada are very weak, so coming and seeing all these people gathered together, from different countries, speaking different languages, but sharing the same faith, is amazing,” she commented.

Shaimoun Gergi and Elie Georgos both live in Sweden but they are of Syrian descent. They told me that many people were surprised when they saw their Syrian flag: “A lot of people think there are just Muslims in Syria, that there are no Christians, so we explain, and they find that very surprising.”

When I asked them if they believed that their homeland would one day find peace and stability again, they were adamant: “One thing about Syrians is that we never lose hope.”

Syrian Catholics at World Youth Day in Lisbon on Aug. 4, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Most of those in Syria who wanted to come to Lisbon were unable to make the trip, either because they were not granted visas or the trip was too expensive. Olga Al Muati was one of only two exceptions, and she said that she felt she was representing the whole community.

“All the people here are praying for Syria and hoping that things will return to how they were before. We hope so, it is really complicated back there, but we have hope, we pray a lot,” she said.

Jouzian Wahhab (second from right), who was born in Jordan and lives in Canada, with other Jordanian Christians at World Youth Day in Lisbon. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Two-state problem

After the Coptic Catholic Divine Liturgy ended, some young Palestinian Christians took to the stage to offer a crucifix to one representative of each national delegation.

Though everything took place in Arabic, I could tell that they mentioned Syria often, to resounding applause, moving Olga almost to tears.

Bishops and priests prepare to celebrate Coptic Catholic liturgy. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

Knowing that there was also a delegation of Israeli Catholics in Lisbon, including Arab Israelis, Hebrew-speaking Israelis, and refugees and asylum seekers, I asked one young Palestinian from East Jerusalem if they had traveled together. 

He didn’t seem to know what I was referring to, so I said that I knew there was a group from Israel. He cut me off and said: “Not Israel, occupied Palestine” — at which point I decided not to pursue the issue.

I did, however, notice that just about every member of the Palestinian delegation wore a pin bearing the face of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian journalist who was shot by Israelis in 2022, in unclear circumstances.

A WYD pilgrim with a T-shirt proclaiming that being Catholic is beautiful. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

200,000, but only one ‘Chosen’

There was plenty of activity in the City of Joy, as the riverside park in Belém is called. This is the venue equipped with 150 confessionals and where the pope went to hear the confession of three pilgrims on Friday morning. 

A special confessional had been prepared for Pope Francis, with a nice comfortable chair, but he refused and instead sat on the wooden bench, in a different booth.

Those three pilgrims who made their confessions to the pope were a drop in the ocean of 50,000 who received the Sacrament of Reconciliation during these days at the City of Joy, not to mention the countless others who confessed to priests in other places, at other times, including on sidewalks around town.

The City of Joy also hosted several conferences, but none caused as much excitement as that led by Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in the hit series “The Chosen.” He told the audience, sitting on the grass under pine trees, about his faith journey and how excited he was to be at his first WYD.

Roumie was only one of 200,000 pilgrims who, according to the organizers, visited the City of Joy during WYD. Other American speakers who proved popular included Bishop Robert Barron, who had several speaking engagements, and Christopher West, who packed more than a few venues, including a special edition of Faith’s Night Out, organized by the Portuguese branch of the Youth Teams of Our Lady. During that event, eight speakers got to give 15-minute Ted Talk-style presentations. 

Faith’s Night Out was celebrated as a good example of the new evangelization called for by Pope Francis and his predecessors. In around a decade, the initiative has grown from audiences of around 150 people to selling out some of the largest conference halls in Lisbon.


Pillar readers (in a good way)

Pillar reader Jack Figg (right) with his colleague Jay Soldner at The Leaven, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

I was sitting in the press center Thursday, putting the finishing touches to the previous WYD diary, when somebody asked me who I was writing for. When I replied, Jack Figg, the young journalist sitting next to me, almost fell out of his chair with excitement and told me that he was a big fan of The Pillar.

Pilgrims from Maryland with Pillar reader Fr Martino. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez.

On Friday, the same thing happened when I spoke with a group of pilgrims from Maryland, and their priest, Fr. Martino, admitted to being an enthusiastic reader. A short distance ahead, I ran into a group of Canadians with Fr. Eric Robichaud, who said he enjoyed the site as well.

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‘The impact is unbelievable’

Fr. Robichaud also told me that the WYD experience was transforming the lives of his pilgrims. 

“The impact is unbelievable,” he said. “Not necessarily something tangible, it’s something more personal. It’s an experience. And you get so close to it, so involved, that your whole being is impacted by it.”

Pope Francis will travel to Fatima Saturday, but for most of the other WYD pilgrims, the day will involve a long trek to the venue for the vigil and closing Mass, which will take place on Sunday morning.

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