epa10783273 Pope Francis (C) arrives to attend a welcome ceremony in Meeting Hill at Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon, Portugal, 03 August 2023. The Pontiff is in Portugal on the occasion of World Youth Day (WYD), one of the main events of the Church that gathers the Pope with youngsters from around the world, that takes place until 06 August. EPA/ANTONIO PEDRO SANTOS / POOL

Pope describes World Youth Day as “beautiful experience”

Lisbon’s mass Catholic fest was “best ever”, says delighted pontiff

Almost a week of intense celebrations in Lisbon drew to an exuberant close on Sunday as the Pope finally bid farewell to World Youth Day and the million-plus young people who had made the journey from almost all corners of the world to mark it.

Speaking to reporters for the first time on the TAP flight transporting him home to Rome, the 86-year-old pontiff said, for him, this was the best World Youth Day yet – from the point of view of attendance, organisation and the overall buzz of unabashed joy.

Lisbon transformed into a “city of dreams” that will remain in young pilgrims’ memories, he hopes, forever.

Of course, there were some ‘difficult moments’ – not least the meeting with victims of the Church’s child sex abuse ‘crisis’ that has come to light in recent years. But, somehow, this Argentine Pope managed to transmit compassion, outrage and determination to right the wrongs of the past in such a way that very few had anything negative to say.

Victims group leaders were the first to admit that the manner in which Pope Francis listened and spoke with victims had encouraged others to ‘come out’ and denounce historic abuse that they had previously been too ashamed to talk about. Many more are expected.

This was all achieved on the first day of Pope Francis’ punishing schedule.

Pope Francis kisses a baby during the route between Belem Palace and Centro Cultural de Belem after a meeting with Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (not pictured) in Lisbon, Portugal, 02 August 2023. The Pontiff will be in Portugal on the occasion of World Youth Day (WYD), one of the main events of the Church that gathers the Pope with youngsters from around the world, that takes place until 06 August. JOSE SENA GOULAO/LUSA/POOL

After that, it was a demanding round of blessings, Masses, visits to Fátima, even a trip to a ‘dirt-poor neighbourhood’ in the capital – where residents still live without basic hygiene.

Throughout, the 86-year-old, who requires a zimmer frame with wheels to actually put one foot in front of the other, showed that ‘stardust’ isn’t simply the domain of rock stars: this Pope has it, and knows exactly how to use it.

Aerial filming of the final Mass on Saturday in Parque Tejo – under temperatures so blistering faith could have been the only reason for people remaining upright – was beyond impressive. The Vatican confirmed some way through the event that the 1.5 million pilgrims expected for had, in fact, shown up. It was, without doubt, Lisbon’s moment of glory – a feel-good release in which all the months of planning, the weathering of political back-biting, paid off.

President Marcelo, who had taken an active part in World Youth Day all the way through from the planning stages to the melée of the crowds, appeared so taken by the feeling of success during the event that he made all kinds of declarations: he will be going to the next World Youth Day (in four years’ time) “wherever it is”;  “more young people should be involved in political decision-making” and World Youth Day was “the greatest event of democracy”.

Now that the dust has settled, the Pope is back in the Vatican, the 1.5 million visitors have dissipated – and the country is distracted by raging wildfires – the slightly negative aspects of World Youth Day have bobbed back to the surface: particularly the suspicion over so many millions of euros spent, much of them on ‘directly awarded contracts’.

CHEGA has been the first political party to start banging the table and demanding transparency. The Church, in the form of World Youth Day organiser and soon to be ordained bishop, América Aguiar, has pledged everything will be explained … but it might take a bit of time.

For Lisbon mayor Carlos Moedas, the last week has been proof of his constant assertions that the returns of this Catholic funfest would vastly outweigh the expense. The city will have benefitted from all the positive PR; the financial results of simply having over a million visitors in the space of a week – and the fact that now it has a whole new riverfront area, transformed for use in the future by city residents … although it will require a few more trees.

epa10781636 Pope Francis waves to the crowd after a meeting with the Portugal's Prime Minister at Apostolic Nunciature in Lisbon, Portugal, 02 August 2023. The Pontiff is in Portugal on the occasion of World Youth Day (WYD), one of the main events of the Church that gathers the Pope with youngsters from around the world, that takes place until 06 August.  EPA/MIGUEL A. LOPES / POOL

“Challenge is how to capitalise on impact of WYD”

In between his enthusiastic waxings of the ‘wonders of today’s youth’, President Marcelo stressed that the challenge facing Portugal in the aftermath of World Youth Day is to “​find out what the impact of the event was, and how to capitalise on it.

“The challenge for the Portuguese is to understand what worked well, what was the impact and how to take advantage of it – not only in terms of inspiration, animation, mobilisation, but also in concrete acts,” he said.

As the president mingled among the crowds, he declared World Youth Day was the greatest event of democracy.

“I have no experience before democracy,” he quickly admitted, “but I don’t see a million free young people in a dictatorship, either”.

From the very first moment, the event was “a crescendo”, the buzz of it “amazing” and the real difference from events in the past being the fact that all young people from various countries ‘mixed together’, he said. They were not segregated into countries.

This aspect saw some moot moments, reportedly – not least between Russian pilgrims and those from Ukraine – but nothing that specially ‘hit the headlines’.

There were highs (a young Spanish pilgrim with 5% sight claims to have recovered her vision completely during prayers) and lows (a French pilgrim fell down the stairs at her boarding house, and later died of her injuries; a young Croatian is in a critical condition after suffering a catastrophic diving injury in the sea). But the overriding message was that Lisbon did the Pope proud (and vice-versa), with the Catholic Church coming away from this event stronger and more hopeful of a future in which young people should, and will want to, play a part.

This was the 37th World Youth Day – and this Pope’s fourth. Some may think he is unlikely to be in his current role for a fifth (when he would be 90).

In fact, if the Pope’s sense of timing continues as impeccable as it appeared in Lisbon, he will probably capitalise on this latest high to pass the baton on to a younger religious leader with the energy required to continue the quiet revolution he has been inspiring in an institution that has often appeared completely out of touch with the modern world.

By Natasha Donn
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