Skip to content

WYD Lisbon passes first test, despite vanishing pilgrims and risky swims

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:

World Youth Day officially began in Portugal Tuesday with an open-air Mass celebrated by Cardinal Manuel Clemente, the Patriarch of Lisbon.

Clemente told the hundreds of thousands young people present in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park to be wary of replacing “true reality, which can only be reached while on the path to others, as they truly are, with the virtual appearance of a world of choice.” 

Pilgrims attend World Youth Day’s opening Mass in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

“Virtual reality keeps us seated in front of devices that easily use us when we think we are using them. Reality, on the contrary, consists of going out to meet others and the world as they are,” the cardinal said. 

This was a milestone Mass for Clemente. Though he delegated most of the organization of World Youth Day to his auxiliary Bishop Américo Aguiar, he is still the host. But it is known that, as he is aged 75 and suffers from ill health, the cardinal is going to be replaced as Patriarch of Lisbon very soon, probably immediately after WYD. 

The open-air Mass was therefore also Clemente’s chance to say goodbye to the Patriarchate of Lisbon, as from Wednesday onward he will be overshadowed by Pope Francis.

World Youth Day pilgrims hold the flag of California in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

The Mass was also the first major test for WYD’s organizers — things went pretty well.

How many people exactly participated is open to debate.

Official figures point to around 190,000, but to those of us who were there, that seems like a conservative estimate. 

Regardless, it was a huge crowd. And although there was some confusion with people not respecting the areas they were assigned to, the general atmosphere was extremely festive and, within the chaos that usually marks WYDs, transport and communications actually worked very well. 

The next few days will see more major events, including the Aug. 3 welcome ceremony for the pope, the Aug. 4 Stations of the Cross, and, of course, the Aug. 6 closing Mass. 

At least a million people are expected to turn up for the final Mass. But if recent estimates are anything to go by, the real figure could be much higher. A Mass for pilgrims in Porto — marking the end of the “Days in the Dioceses,” which precede WYD — was supposed to be attended by around 13,000 people, but 60,000 showed up. In Braga, another city in northwestern Portugal, they were expecting 5,000, but 20,000 showed up. 

Priests pictured at World Youth Day’s opening Mass in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media.

Give a gift subscription

Runaway pilgrims?

Two bits of news did the rounds on Tuesday: one tragic, another curious. An elderly French pilgrim — possibly a nun, though that is not clear — fell and cracked her head on Monday evening, and is in a coma, so please stop to say a prayer for her recovery. 

The other story was that around 100 pilgrims from Angola and Cape Verde have apparently vanished. 

Of course, there has always been fear among the authorities that people would use WYD as a cover to come to Portugal – a European Union country – and then refuse to head home. As The Pillar reported last week, that is why many pilgrims had their visa requests refused. 

But in this case, it is still not clear if the African pilgrims are trying to settle in the country illegally. Border restrictions have been put back in place for the length of WYD, so they would find it very difficult to get out of the country, though they could just be hiding somewhere, waiting it out. 

Pilgrims attend World Youth Day’s opening Mass in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

Of course, being from former Portuguese colonies with massive communities in the country already, it is just as likely that they decided not to check in to the places they were meant to stay because they preferred to visit relatives. Sources from the WYD organization told The Pillar that they were still trying to make sense of sometimes conflicting accounts.

Oh, and Lisbon’s city hall has expressed concern that some pilgrims have been bathing in the river, which is unsafe. To be clear, we did tell you not to do that

Agatha Lydia and Emile Abou Char, members of the International Youth Advisory Body. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

Leave a comment

‘It isn’t easy to convert’

One of the interesting things about WYD is that young people get to meet other Catholics who come from very different realities, including those who experience persecution on a regular basis or live in countries where they are a minority. 

Emile Abou Chaar is a Lebanese Maronite Catholic who sits on the International Youth Advisory Body, set up after the 2019 youth synod in Rome to advise Church governing bodies. 

Emile spoke to The Pillar about his experience growing up in Lebanon, where Christians and Muslims live side by side in an atmosphere that is often full of tension, but where Christians feel they are called to be bridge builders.

“How can we maintain this relationship with different religions, and how can we be Christians among other religions or people of no religion?” he asked. 

“The core of dialogue is to believe and to say that we are sisters and brothers in this world. We cannot have the attitude of saying: ‘I am right, you are wrong.’ There is a freedom of each person to choose, and other people make other choices.” 

“We are all God’s children. This is not something easy. We need to talk to people, go to them, ask them what they want. Jesus always asked people what they want.”.

This is not to say that Emile believes one should not share one’s faith with others. Quite the contrary: He says he cannot imagine his life without it, and explains that he is actually the godfather of two girls who converted from Islam to Christianity.

Pilgrims holding the flag of Tanzania at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

“I was asked by a friend, who is a priest, to help guide two girls who had said that they wanted to convert from Islam to Christianity. They are about my age. We talked a lot, about God and about the theological differences, because it is not easy to convert. It is a whole change of mind, of culture. It is also another practice, another world vision.”

“The personal relationship with God is what changed everything, and their journey has been wonderful, despite difficulties with their families.”

“One of the two girls told me that once she opened the Quran and the Bible and was searching for answers, when she felt, deep inside, a call to meet God, Jesus Christ, and get to know him better.” 

“And since that day, her life changed. She changed the way she saw the world. She met a love that is all-giving, unto death, and that changed her life.”

Due to the terrible financial situation in Lebanon, Emile emigrated to Switzerland five years ago, where he works as a spiritual counselor at a psychiatric hospital. The move from a religion-saturated Middle Eastern society to a post-Christian secular one was a shock. 

Pilgrims holding East Timor’s flag at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

“In Lebanon, everyone knows there is a God. It is a different society, a different way of thinking. So seeing a Church that is afraid of society... It makes it very difficult to live the faith,” he said.

“But after a few years in Switzerland, I saw that this could be an opportunity. I asked myself: ‘How can I be afraid? This is what I believe. Should I keep this to myself?’ I have to find a way to share my faith with society, without imposing, perhaps through little things, like saying ‘God bless you.’ I am who I am: A believer. And I want to share my faith.” 

He added: “Here in Europe, we need to find out what it means to be a Christian in a secularized world. Does it mean that our faith should be lived in private? Or should we be building bridges?”

A lot of bridges are being built in Lisbon this week: Between East and West, different traditions, and various ways of expressing one universal religion. 

World Youth Day pilgrims hold the flags of Panama and the Dominican Republic in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Credit: Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media.

Upgrade your subscription

Fun with flags

One of the most impressive aspects of WYD is the abundant variety of flags on display. Pretty much every group carries a flag of its country or region. 

As I walked around Lisbon appreciating the vexillological display, it dawned on me how events like WYD are such good expressions of healthy love for one’s country. The flags are not being used merely as political symbols: They are not being exhibited against anybody. 

Rather, they are used to identify and express pride in one’s country or community. But that pride is always seen against a backdrop of common belonging to one Catholic Church. 

In other words, rather than shouting out “This is who I am, if you don’t like it, get out of the way,” these flags are saying: “I am from this country, but see, we are brothers.”

World Youth Day pilgrims hold Indonesia’s flag in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 1, 2023. Filipe D’Avillez/Pillar Media

This is an important statement in a continent trying to come to terms with rising nationalism and intolerance. The solution is not to suppress national symbols and shame those who use them, but to frame them in a positive way. 

Anyway, here are a few of the most exotic and interesting flags I saw on the streets of Lisbon on Tuesday.


American Samoa

The Chaldean flag

An unofficial, non-Church-related flag used to symbolize the Chaldean community:

The Mexican flag

Worn by a reporter on the job:

The Burgundy Cross flag

This flag was used by Carlists – legitimist monarchists who fought with the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War – but can also represent the Spanish Empire, as is the case here: 

The flag of the Portuguese monarchy

Subscribe now

Comments 54