What World Youth Day Taught a Jesuit Pilgrim

by | Aug 9, 2023 | Global Catholicism, MAG+S & WYD

I walked with my pilgrim group through the cobblestone streets of Coimbra and arrived at the “Old Cathedral” of the city. The sign outside indicated that construction on the Gothic building was completed in the twelfth century. I placed my hand on one of the worn-down stones at the base of this magnificent structure. As I did this, I realized that almost one thousand years ago, at this very spot, there was another set of human hands placing this stone precisely in this position constructing this cathedral.

I tried to imagine what this 12th-century construction worker may have been like. His name, of course, is lost to history. And in many ways, this anonymous man and I have nothing in common. He spoke an entirely different language than me, dressed differently, ate differently, and likely had a very different understanding of the world around him. But I imagined him to be a Christian man, who saw his work constructing the cathedral to be at the service of God.

Old Cathedral in Coimbra, Portugal

At that moment, with my hand on the stone, I realized that as different as this 12th-century worker was from me, we have one vital thing in common. We carry within our hearts the same fervor to serve Jesus Christ, and to build up the Church. This zeal has existed in Christian hearts throughout the centuries, and it is a fervor that still unites us with those who have gone before us, and with those who will come after us.

I was visiting Coimbra as part of a larger pilgrimage to Portugal for World Youth Day – the global meeting of Catholic youth that has occurred roughly every three years since 1985.

The event was started by Pope St. John Paul II and has been joyfully continued by each of his successors.

The gathering took place in Lisbon, Portugal, and is perhaps something better experienced than described. I traveled with a group of teachers from Jesuit high schools throughout the East Coast of the United States. We arrived a week before the start of World Youth Day to participate in the Magis program – a global gathering of the Ignatian family in which we pray, share faith, and grow in communion with one another leading up to our participation in World Youth Day with the whole Church.

With 1.5 million pilgrims flooding the streets of Lisbon, sleeping arrangements were necessarily challenging. During the week of World Youth Day, my delegation found ourselves sleeping on the floor of an old train depot, each of us allotted a three-by-six-foot section, marked off by white masking tape. We slept amidst hundreds of pilgrims from throughout the world.

Train Depot – i.e., Home Sweet Home for the Week

In many ways, the discomfort of the train depot enhanced the pilgrimage experience. There was almost an inverse relationship between physical comfort and spiritual connection. Through the notable discomfort of the train depot, an unspoken, spiritual bond was formed by all of us. We were all willing to put ourselves through this because we all shared a common purpose. We were united by that ancient fervor – to serve Jesus Christ and to build up the Church.

While World Youth Day features smaller events throughout the week – talks, conferences, exhibitions, vocation booths – the main events are the gatherings with the Holy Father. On Thursday, some million people packed into Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon for the welcoming ceremony with Pope Francis. The Pope’s resounding message during this ceremony was that in the Church there is space for “todos! todos! todos!” (“all! all! all!”) These words took on an enhanced meaning amidst a crowd of a million people from seemingly every corner of the globe.

The culminating event was a Mass, which took place on Sunday morning at Tejo Park on the eastern edge of the city. The Mass was preceded on Saturday night by a prayer vigil and Eucharistic adoration. What was most striking about Eucharistic adoration was the silence that overtook the massive crowd at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. One and a half million people, extending as far as the eye can see, fell to their knees in prayer and adoration in the presence of the Lord.

After the prayer vigil on Saturday night, pilgrims slept outside in the same park awaiting Mass the next day. I attempted to sleep on the rough ground amidst this mass of humanity. As one of my Jesuit brothers commented, “After the concrete floor of the train depot, sleeping on grass is like sleeping on a cloud!”

We awoke the next day to a stunning sunrise over the Tagus River, and anxiously awaited the beginning of Mass with the Pope. In his homily, Pope Francis repeatedly told us, “Do not be afraid!” (No tengan miedo!), hearkening back to a favorite line of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II.

I struggle to put into words the experience of this pilgrimage that I won’t soon forget. But thankfully, I was helped by a fellow pilgrim from Portugal – Manuel Theotónio. I had met Manuel before World Youth Day began, during the Magis experience with the Ignatian family. He was one of the 4 gracious leaders of my small group during those days. At the end of the Magis experience, each pilgrim was asked to say what the experience had meant to him or her. Manuel stood up and said, “This experience has made me feel like I’m part of something bigger than my country, and bigger than this world.”

Pilgrims Gathering Before Saturday’s Prayer Vigil in Lisbon, Portugal

These words from Manuel capture the essence of Magis and World Youth Day. Indeed, for me, they capture the essence of being Catholic. The Catholic Church extends through and beyond all time and all space. It includes anonymous 12th-century construction workers, people from every corner of the globe today, and the entire communion of saints. Todos, todos, todos. To be Catholic is to be a part of something bigger than oneself, bigger than one’s country, and, indeed, bigger than this world. 

World Youth Day was a moment when that reality was more apparent and more felt than perhaps any other time in my life. This particular experience of being part of this vibrant, timeless Body has given me renewed energy to love and serve Jesus Christ and to build up the Church in my own time and my own place, knowing that Catholics all over the world and throughout all time have done (and will continue to do) the same.

The theme of this year’s World Youth Day was taken from Luke 1:39 – “Mary arose and went with haste.” And like our Blessed Mother, we pilgrims are now traveling in haste, prepared to preach the Gospel to todos, todos, todos.

Cover Photo: (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Edited 8.09.23 at 10:49 AM