ROME – As Pope Francis heads to Lisbon tomorrow for World Youth Day, an event often dubbed the “Catholic Woodstock” due to the large and celebratory crowds it always draws, he faces the unique challenge revitalizing the faith amid growing European secularism and progressively empty pews in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have already flocked to Lisbon for World Youth Day (WYD), set to take place from Aug. 1-6 and which holds the theme, “Mary arose and went in haste.” By the time the pontiff celebrates the event’s concluding Mass August 6, turnout is expected to reach well over one million people, and perhaps even more.
A defining question that will haunt the event is whether those huge crowds can be translated into a bump for routine practice of the faith, once the star power of the pope is back in Rome.
Whether or not Francis’s presence may benefit the local church, a key papal advisor says he’s sure of at least one party who will gain strength from the encounter with the vast throngs of pumped-up young Catholics assembling in the Portuguese capital: Pope Francis himself.
“He gets along very well with young people; we’ve seen it on various occasions,” Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro told Crux.
It is as if energy flows,” Spadaro said, noting that when the pope travels, his meeting with young people usually comes at the end of a trip when he is already tired, but whenever he gets there, “he is always revitalized, there’s this dynamic energy which he embodies.”
Initially scheduled for 2022 but postponed due to COVID-19, this year’s event marks the first international WYD gathering since the pandemic.
Pope Francis kicked off his papacy with WYD in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, his first international outing, happening just four months after his election. Lisbon will mark his fourth international WYD as pope, following previous gatherings in Krakow in 2016 and Panama in 2019.
As he arrives in Lisbon Wednesday, he’ll be setting foot in a country recently rocked by a series of clerical abuse scandals at a time when Mass attendance on the whole is declining throughout Europe, and where the public practice of faith seems to be shrinking by the day.
Speaking to journalists ahead of the pope’s trip, the Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Clemente, said that while the majority of Portugal’s traditionally Catholic population, roughly 70 percent, declare themselves to be Catholic, far fewer would be classified as “practicing,” meaning at the very least that they attend Mass on a weekly basis.
“I believe that what’s happening, not just here in Portugal but all over Europe, is something different, because we have passed from being a multi-confessional state…to a state in which devotion is something very personal,” Clemente said.
Faith, he said, is now “more individual, it’s not something social or cultural for everyone, religion is personalized.”
Established by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1986 as a way to reach out to youth and engage them in church life, WYD is celebrated every year at the local level, but the international gatherings every three years or so are famous for the massive crowds they draw, with young people descending into the host city in droves, usually bustling with excitement and song.
Youths who have attended WYD gatherings have said the event had a lifelong impact, and many have pegged it as the time when they either met their spouse or first felt the call to religious life.
Proximity to the pope has always been among the most thrilling aspects for the youth who come, and Pope Francis did not disappoint at WYD in Rio in 2013, famously rallying a group of young Argentinians, telling them to make a “mess” and to get out on the streets and spread the faith without worrying whose feathers they ruffle.
Organizers hope this year’s WYD in Lisbon might be just the jab Europe needs as it also attempts to recover from the spiritual fallout of COVID-19 and years of growing religious apathy.
While there, Pope Francis will meet with civil authorities, including Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Prime Minister António Costa, as well as the country’s Catholic hierarchy, priests, and religious.
He is also slated to meet university students and youth belonging to various organizations in addition to presiding over official WYD activities, including an official welcome ceremony Thursday, the traditional WYD Via Crucis on Friday, a large prayer vigil on Saturday, and a public Mass on Sunday.
The pontiff is also scheduled to hear the confessions of young people and hold a private meeting with abuse survivors during his stay.
On Friday, he will visit the famed Marian shrine of Fatima, roughly 80 miles from Lisbon, and which is the site of the famed 1917 Marian apparitions to three shepherd children, two of whom Francis canonized during his visit to Fatima in 2017 for the centenary anniversary of the apparitions.
Speaking to Crux, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, head of Italian Jesuit-run magazine La Civilta Cattolica and a papal confidant who accompanies Pope Francis on all of his international trips, said Francis is uniquely positioned to reach young people, as he sees them as protagonists not only in the future of the church but it’s present.
Pope Francis “feels that youth are the present, not the future, so the responsibility is for today,” he said, saying the pope wants them to be “the protagonists of the key questions of the current world.”
“When the pope says to ‘make a mess,’ using such a strong expression, it means this: Take your destiny in hand now” and move forward, he said.
Spadaro said there is a need for “youth protagonism” in the world, especially at a time when “young people are subjected to the rules that others make for them, and they are not protagonists of the way the world is developing.”
He noted that in many instances, young people wait until they are older to become active or to get involved in projects, meaning these young people, as youths, “become elderly in some way, middle aged.”
“The idea today of being young has been extended in time, there is a sort of hybridization between elderly and young,” Spadaro said, but noted that what is important for Pope Francis is that youth “begin to assume their own responsibility soon,” while they are still young.
Pop Francis’s desire to engage with “restless” youth and even those who are seemingly “maladjusted,” in that they don’t sugarcoat their ideas, goes back to his time in Buenos Aires, Spadaro said, saying this desire has accompanied Francis throughout his papacy and is “perfectly integrated” into his overall pastoral agenda.
“There is perfect integration, and this is due to his desire to dialogue,” he said, and specifically cited Francis’s repeated calls for young people to dialogue with the elderly.
Clemente in his remarks said the pope will likely engage key issues of concern during his visit, such as migration, the clerical abuse scandals and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
This will likely happen during the pope’s visit to Fatima and during the WYD Via Crucis, he said, saying, “It is the Via Crucis of the world, and [the world] will be present in the prayers, reflections, and meditations.”
Other issues expected to be major themes are key papal priorities, such as his concerns about climate change, social injustice, global fraternity, and the Ukraine-Russia war, which will likely come up in his visit to the Fatima shrine.
Noting that Pope Francis underwent abdominal surgery in June following a brief hospital stay earlier this year, in addition to his chronic sciatica and knee pain, Spadaro said he does not think papal health will be an issue, and that Francis “is absolutely aware and, I would say, comfortable with his limitations.”
“He really loves to be active, to meet, to touch, to see, to participate. So clearly severe limitations like the leg and all the rest are a concern, however, this concern does not [stop] him,” Spadaro said, saying Francis “knows how to calibrate his energy, he has always done this very well from the beginning.”
“So I would say yes, there are health troubles, but this will not hold back the energy…I think the young people will react very, very well, because they are very, very sensitive to these limits, and they know how much the pope loves them.”
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