How reporting from World Youth Day is reinvigorating my faith
A Reflection for World Youth Day
Find today’s readings here.
It’s early afternoon in Lisbon, Portugal, on the opening day of World Youth Day 2023, and my mother has just sent me a text message. “Son, bring me some of those Youth Day t-shirts, and anything to put around my neck as a souvenir,” she writes. “How I wish I could be there with you!”
At first, I took it as a playful note from a mother to her only son, who is a journalist covering World Youth Day, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis tomorrow. But this message communicates a deeper yearning than my mother’s apparently simple desire for branded merchandise.
I have been here for over a fortnight now, and each day the atmosphere grows more electric as pilgrims from every country descend on one of the oldest cities in Europe for the largest gathering of youth in the world. It seems there are makeshift stages that erupt with song in every square; every café sounds like a living tower of Babel. The city is teeming with youth—one group I know is sleeping, tightly packed together, in a train depot for the week.
Experiencing the vitality, energy and excitement of young Catholics has been a reinvigorating experience for me, and I cannot help but feel great pride in being Catholic, and belonging to a church of sinners and saints alike.
I confess, I can be a little cynical. It is a trait that serves me well as a journalist, keeping me questioning and always in search of truth. As a baptized Christian, it can lead more often than not to despondency—even despair. However, witnessing World Youth Day in person makes it difficult to focus on any of the hopelessness. Experiencing the vitality, energy and excitement of young Catholics has been a reinvigorating experience for me, and I cannot help but feel great pride in being Catholic, and belonging to a church of sinners and saints alike. I believe that's the reason why my mom sent me that message; she also sees and feels the energy that is still present in the church and it reminds her that faith is alive and that her faith is not in vain—and she wants to be a part of it, too.
In a church riddled with scandals of abuse of power and sex, financial impropriety and political wars, it can be easy to lose hope and a sense of why we continue to be Catholic. Mega-events like this, where the church’s faithful gather in celebration and worship, bolster us. They offer a glimpse of the life that is still here among the youngest generations of the church’s faithful—even amid the shame and disrepute that sometimes creeps in and brings us to question why we remain—and fan it into flame.
I am not naive enough to think that there are not many young people who are here to simply party it up, and soak in the nightlife of a city as metropolitan as this one at a time when it’s bustling with young people from all over the world, and to lay their eyes on the pope. At the same time, I can’t ignore what I have already seen of the lived faith of scores of young people over these days.
Even if they are here for the party of a lifetime—and why shouldn't they be—I have also seen many of them taking long periods of solace and quiet in churches and chapels day and night around the city. It seems to me that they are here because they want a deeper encounter with the Lord and are prepared to dedicate some time, amid the euphoria of World Youth Day, to seek and pursue that desire they have to meet God. They, like Moses in today's first reading, want to meet the Lord, “face to face, as a person speaks to a friend.” May we, like those who saw Moses entering “the meeting tent” and the scores present at World Youth Day, be inspired to do as they did, and “rise and worship at the entrance of [our] own tents.”