LISBON – In his first official event for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Pope Francis on Thursday cautioned against the illusions of the virtual world and urged young people to stay rooted in reality, always being connected to Christ.
Speaking to youths gathered in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park for the opening ceremony of World Youth Day (WYD) Thursday evening, Francis said the crowd’s loud cheers energized him and allowed him to share in their “infectious joy.”
He said each of them had been called by God, saying, “At the beginning of the story of our lives, before any talents we may have, before any shadows or wounds we might bear within us, we are called. Called because we are loved.”
“If God calls you by name, it means that for him you are not a number, but a face,” he said, noting that in the digital universe, names appear on social media platforms and are processed by algorithms that associate it with a set of likes and preferences.
All of this “is useful for market research, yet it does not begin to approach you in your uniqueness,” he said, asking them: “How many wolves hide behind smiles of false goodness, saying that they know you, though they do not love you?”
“They insist that they believe in you and promise that you will become someone, but then abandon you when you no longer matter. These are the illusions of the virtual world, and we must be careful not to let ourselves be deceived,” he said, noting that many things that initially seem attractive are later revealed as “vain, superfluous and surrogate things that leave us empty inside.”
Jesus, however, “is not like that. He trusts you, for him you truly matter,” he said, noting that in letters sent to him by WYD attendees before the gathering began, some had expressed fear that they would not be accepted or that there would be no space for them in the church.
“Dear friends, I want to make this clear to you who are allergic to dishonesty and to empty words: there is room for everyone in the Church and, whenever there is not, then, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle,” he said.
The church, Francis said, “is, and must increasingly be, that home where the echo of God’s call to each of us by name resounds. The Lord does not point a finger, but opens wide his arms: Jesus showed us this on the Cross. He does not close the door, but invites us to enter; he does not keep us at a distance, but welcomes us.”
Welcome and inclusion have been major themes for the church in recent months as Pope Francis’s multi-year Synod of Synodality continues, with the first of two Rome-based gatherings scheduled to take place in Rome in October.
Aimed at transforming church life and structures to make it a more welcoming place for all of its members, the synod is expected to touch on hot-button topics traditionally considered to be taboo, such as women’s priestly ordination, blessings for same-sex couples, and the inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In off-the-cuff remarks during his speech, the pope said God’s love is surprising, and insisted that “God loves us as we are, not as you want to be, not as society wants you to be, but as you are, with all our defects, because he is a father.”
“He loves us, God loves us, God loves us,” he said, and had the youth repeat it.
Pope Francis Thursday encouraged young people to continue to be “restless,” saying this restlessness is “the best remedy for mere routine, for that flat normalcy that dulls the soul.”
He closed his speech urging youth to entrust themselves to the Virgin Mary, saying she is the best example of being open to God’s love.
Pope Francis is currently in Lisbon as part of an Aug. 2-6 visit to Portugal for World Youth Day, during which he will visit Fatima and participate in other major WYD gatherings.