Touching His cloak at World Youth Day

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Thousands of young Catholic people gather in Lisbon, Portugal for the 2023 World Youth Day. Photo by Lucia Caranti.

A Different Kind of Retreat

After reading an opinion piece recently on World Youth Day, I realized that pilgrims this summer in Lisbon, Portugal, were craving a retreat-like experience. I, too, desired time for silence and reflection during the liturgy, but I understood before my arrival in Lisbon that few moments throughout the week would closely imitate my preference for the quiet Church of the Incarnation, silent adoration and complex sermons.
World Youth Day is a retreat of another kind. That’s the beauty of it. Whereas the opinion piece’s subject favored the mystical experience of the Camino de Santiago and the pilgrims’ mortification at Fátima (all commendable practices included in many pilgrims’ trips), World Youth Day from its inception was intended for missionary discipleship. For the first World Youth Day, held in 1986, Pope John Paul selected 1 Pt 3:15 for its theme: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” Make a defense to anyone. From its birth, World Youth Day intended to expand the youth’s souls outside of themselves, even outside of the universal Church.
This year’s theme called pilgrims back to Mary’s fiat: not just her yes, but the action following her yes. In selecting Luke 1:39 as this year’s theme, Pope Francis requires youth to serve without hesitation. “Mary arose and went with haste,” in addition to pondering her mission in her heart.
That being said, it is unfair for some critics to ask the gathering of 1.5 million Catholic, patriotic, enthusiastic, pilgrims to form a personal, mystical, self-reflective experience like those found on the Camino or at Fatima. World Youth Day is simply distinct from the other two encounters. When riding on the metro to the vigil at Campo da Graça, I met a Tahitian man. To reach Lisbon, he and four hundred others flew from Tahiti, to Seattle, to Paris, to Lisbon, culminating in almost two days of travel—only to arrive in a crowded, humid, hilly city to catch maybe just a glimpse of the Holy Father. His dedication was unreal, unheard of amongst Americans. He was a real pilgrim. Just like the hemorrhaging woman who hoped for a cure by just touching the cloak of Christ, so did the metro passenger hope only to be in the vicinity of the Vicar of Christ. He spent nearly four days traveling to catch a mere glimpse of the back of the head of the Pope, who was locked in by a crowd of thousands of pilgrims just as eager as himself. Although the week was indescribably crowded, immense peace permeated the atmosphere. In a foreign city full of only foreigners, familiarity was possible. Huge hordes of pilgrims moved together synchronously toward their destination. We were like schools of fish. The most moving moment, however, was adoration, which unfortunately was the main criticism of the aforementioned article. As the Eucharist was processed onstage, Paul’s words became flesh, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phi 2:10-11). The crowd went from a constant, loud buzz to immediate silence. Only God can prompt voluntary silence like that. In one moment, it became evident that only Christ, and his person represented in the Pope, can quiet a crowd like that. No announcements were made about reverencing the Eucharist. Everyone simply knew how to act.

Although some contemporary takes on the Gospel bothered some pilgrims, I hope they were able to overlook those for the greater vision of the Universal Church participating in one liturgy. Many pilgrims I have spoken with always refer to adoration as their defining moment of World Youth Day. Catholic news sites continue to report on the event’s miracles, from blindness cured to sudden conversions. If any non-believer witnessed 1.5 million youth kneel willingly at the sight of the monstrance, I am sure he believes now.

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