Ever since they began under St. John Paul II in the 1980s, World Youth Days—week-long festivals of faith held every two or three years in a different city—have been associated with exuberant piety, vast crowds, and life-changing personal moments when young people encounter the universality of the Church and find the courage to commit to Christ in different vocations. The events are tough to organize, with the Church working for years with public services to prepare for unpredictable final numbers, the vagaries of the weather, and unforeseen emergencies. Most World Youth Days have their share of chaos—moments when transport networks and crowd-management measures collapse under the strain.
Not this time. World Youth Day (WYD) in Lisbon (August 1–6) will go down as one of the best attended and most impeccably executed of the seventeen so far. Pope Francis told reporters on the flight back to Rome that, of the four he had experienced as pope (before Lisbon were Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Krakow in July 2016, and Panama in January 2019), this was the best organized. There were more than 600,000 registered pilgrims and 900,000 unregistered ones (plus 600 bishops, 50 cardinals, and 10,000 priests) flooding in for the Saturday night vigil and Sunday morning Mass at Tejo Park alongside the River Tagus.
According to the Vatican official responsible for WYDs, Brazilian Fr. João Chagas, this was also the WYD with the fewest problems. Despite soaring temperatures and a final crowd of 1.5 million—the biggest-ever gathering on Portuguese soil—the organizers were unfazed, having learned from previous WYDs that for every registered pilgrim between two and three unregistered ones would arrive for the weekend celebrations. This was also the most diverse WYD yet; there were flags from Ukraine, China, Congo, Paraguay, and Samoa flapping above the ocean of young people. In fact, there were pilgrims from every nation in the world except one—and if anyone knew of someone in the Maldives who wanted to come, joked the organizers, they would happily send them an airplane ticket.
For one of Europe’s smallest nations (population 10 million), it was a huge achievement, a shot of adrenaline and pride in the arms of both Church and nation. Lisboetas, thousands of whom opened their bedrooms and bathrooms to the pilgrims, were initially intimidated at the sheer scale and volume of the crowds, but they were soon won over by the innocent joy and kindness colonizing their cobbled streets and squares. While they could be immensely noisy—the Latin Americans arrived with badges inscribed with Francis’s instruction to them in 2013 to stir things up (“hacer lío”)—the dancing, singing pilgrims could just as quickly fall silent in prayer or listen respectfully to a speaker. The city’s police chief said that his force had never dealt with a crowd so large and yet good-natured.
The Portuguese Church’s WYD czar was the dynamic Américo Aguiar, the Lisbon auxiliary bishop to whom Francis will give a red hat in the Fall, and who is expected soon to be given a major role in Rome. Dom Américo faced the challenge of keeping up the organizing momentum through repeated Covid postponements—Lisbon took place four and a half years after Panama—but he also reaped the harvest of a pent-up yearning on the part of the young to come together after the long isolation of lockdown.
Dom Américo’s genius was to recognize what the moment—a time of war, mass displacement, and climate emergency—called for, especially in the wake of Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti. This WYD would present itself as a school of fraternity and synodality, where the “culture of encounter” could take concrete shape in a global get-together centered on the experience of God’s mercy and tenderness. For what was almost certainly Francis’s final WYD—he is eighty-six, and the next WYD is slated for 2027 in Seoul—Dom Américo said in the run-up to Lisbon that this would be an event that consolidated the keynotes of this pontificate, creating a “Generation Lisbon” to build a better future for the Church and the world.
“They are taking to the streets, not to cry out in anger but to share the hope of the Gospel, the hope of life,” the pope told Portuguese authorities on his arrival. “At a time when we are witnessing on many sides a climate of protest and unrest, a fertile terrain for forms of populism and conspiracy theories, World Youth Day represents a chance to build together.”
While outwardly this WYD appeared to follow the by-now familiar format, it had some unique characteristics reflecting this pope’s priorities. These can be summarized in four words: ecological, synodal, digital, and fraternal.