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.
A huge effort was made to make this WYD as (in the words of the organizers) “ecologically responsible” as possible. Climate change and the destruction of the natural world remain top concerns for young people, and Pope Francis’s teaching on integral ecology—which locates the source of the crisis in a mindset that rejects our creatureliness—was the first of the three topics the pilgrims studied. Meanwhile, Lisbon’s Catholic University hosted a series of events on the Economy of Francesco—Pope Francis’s call to young people to a new economy that promotes integral ecology and solidarity with the poor. This series included such speakers as the French Jesuit economist Gaël Giraud, the Church’s leading thinker on the ecological transition, and young pioneers of an agroecological movement known as the “Farm of Francesco.”
The WYD app offered to calculate carbon offsets and the organizers sent out a “manual of good practices for a sustainable WYD,” covering everything from transport to meals and accommodation. Pilgrims were asked to avoid throwaway plastic and to recycle as much as they could. They were also asked to plant trees before coming (it was reported that 18,000 trees were planted). Every pilgrim kit included a reusable water bottle, which could be refilled for free at water points across the city, but organizers stopped short of banning throwaway plastic bottles from WYD events, so that at least one well-known U.S. bishop set a jarring counter-example when he addressed an audience of thousands with one in his hand.
“We ask ourselves what our future on this planet will be like,” ran one of the testimonies at the Stations of the Cross. “We witness the unchecked consumption of the earth’s resources, the extinction of species, and the devastation of forests. We are frightened by climate change and feel very insecure about the future,” ran another. For his part, Francis warned Portuguese authorities that “we are transforming great reserves of life into dumping grounds of plastic” and told students at Lisbon’s Catholic University that “unless faith gives rise to convincing lifestyles, it will not be a ‘leaven’ in the world.”
The 2018 synod on young people led to the creation of an advisory group of twenty young people at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. This group urged Fr. Chagas, the head of the dicastery, to introduce a new way of doing the catechesis that is the main activity of WYD pilgrims for three days. At previous WYDs, the young people were involved in creating music and prayers, but the catechesis itself was done in a traditional top-down way, with bishops speaking and young people listening. This year was different. At the so-called “Rise-Ups,” more than four hundred bishops from around the world heard from young people about the questions that arose from their pre-WYD dialogues on the topics of integral ecology, social friendship, and the mercy of God.
“The presence of the bishop is fundamental because they teach in the name of the Church and celebrate with the young people,” Fr. Nuno Amador, head of the Lisbon WYD’s pastoral office, told journalists, “but this time the young people are the protagonists of the encounters and reflections.” Sr. Nathalie Becquart of the synod secretariat in Rome agreed: the fact that young people are “involved in the content, express what they think, what the questions are, and the bishop listens to them and responds to them” showed that the synod is helping Church organizations to rethink the way they do things, she told me.
Another example was the Way of Cross on August 4, which was organized by the Portuguese Jesuits in an explicitly synodal way. They carried out a worldwide consultation with young people about their concerns, and let the vulnerabilities and anxieties young people mentioned shape the texts that young performers read out on stage in the Edward VII park. These were expressed in the form of letters to the Holy Father. The “frailties” referred to in these letters included mental health, loneliness, violence and fear, the ecological crisis, the dignity of work and workers, youth unemployment, the seductions of social media, and abusive and addictive behaviors of all stripes.
There were many such moments in Lisbon that showed a Church keen to listen to experience before offering judgment. There was also a place—São Domingos Church, the Taizé community’s home during WYD—where attendees could experience the method of spiritual conversation. But it was mostly the pope himself who underlined the key theme of the synod as a Church without borders when he roused the sea of young people at the welcome ceremony with words that became the emblem of Lisbon that week: “In the Church, there is room for everyone. Everyone. In the Church, no one is left out or left over. There is room for everyone. Just the way we are. Everyone.”
At the opening Mass, the outgoing Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Clemente, contrasted the trustworthy reality of meeting in person with a virtual world of appearances. In a similar vein, Pope Francis, speaking at the Catholic University on August 3, warned against “replacing faces with screens, the real with the virtual.” At the welcoming ceremony that evening, he contrasted the way God calls and knows us by name, loving us the way we are, with algorithms that claim to know us but are like “wolves who hide behind smiles of false goodness, saying that they know you, though they do not love you.” Yet in a sign that the Church increasingly sees the digital sphere as a place to evangelize, Lisbon’s WYD also hosted the first-ever world meeting of digital evangelizers and missionaries. The August 4 “Festival of Catholic Influencers” was organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, which earlier this year issued a document calling for Catholics to bear witness to Christ through their digital presence, but to be wise as serpents in negotiating the traps and mechanisms linked to financial and political interests.
The Catholic Influencers Festival was also a fruit of the synod, to which dozens of Catholic “digital missionaries” responded last year by organizing a listening exercise aimed at those who live much of their lives online and have little formal contact with the Church. The idea came from a group of young people who took the synod to the “digital continent” with the support of Monsignor Lucio Ruiz of the communications dicastery. Ruiz is an Argentine who created a Latin American Church intranet (RIIAL) back in the 1990s, in the days before the worldwide web. Ruiz was later brought to Rome to overhaul and manage the Vatican’s website. With encouragement from the pope and the synod secretariat, he has mobilized a growing network of Catholic “influencers”—Catholics in social media who have developed large followings and who see themselves as evangelizers—to gather more than 150,000 answers to a series of questions adapted from the synod questionnaire. These were analyzed, synthesized, and included in the global synthesis. (There were one or two delegates of the digital synod at most of the continental synod meetings in February and March this year.)
At the Festival of Catholic Influencers, 577 influencers from 68 countries met face to face in Martim Moniz Square with 20,000 young people at an event that included musical acts and a brief appearance by Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in The Chosen, as well as a video message from Pope Francis calling on the influencers to samaritanizar (be a Good Samaritan in) online spaces. The event ended with a lengthy blessing from the retired Honduran cardinal, Oscar Rodríguez de Maradiaga. Flanked by Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the communications dicastery, the cardinal blessed “these missionaries and evangelizers, so that, filled with the grace they received at baptism and being sent out by the Church, they might carry out with fidelity the mission of Christ’s Church, especially in the digital environment.”
Because the Church has not yet formally embraced the digital sphere as an apostolic mission this was not a Vatican-recognized formula, Msgr. Ruiz explained to me. But he said the blessing—Cardinal Rodríguez’s idea—was an important step in that direction. So, too, were comments by the head of the Vatican’s evangelization dicastery, Cardinal “Chito” Tagle, who told the influencers at the end of a Mass for them the previous day that he was happy for the digital world to be recognized “as a territory, a space, not just a means,” and that this was a “new world of communion and mission” for the Church. Perhaps Lisbon’s WYD will one day be seen as the moment when the Vatican laid the groundwork for a new apostolic mission dedicated to evangelizing the digital sphere.
All WYDs are celebrations of fraternity, but two new elements in Lisbon made this one strikingly so. The first was Fratelli tutti, Francis’s 2020 call to fraternity, which was one of the three catechesis topics for the pilgrims. They studied and discussed fraternity against the background of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a new tide of nationalism in many parts of the world. As Francis said once back in Rome on August 9, “While in Ukraine and other places, there is fighting, and while in certain hidden halls war is planned, World Youth Day showed everyone that another way is possible: a world of brothers and sisters, where the flags of all peoples fly together, next to each other, without hatred, without fear, without closing up, without weapons!” And he asked: Will the “great of the earth” pay attention to this “parable for our time”?
The second element was the ecumenical and interreligious dimension. Not only did the pope meet seventeen religious leaders in Lisbon’s apostolic nunciature on August 5, but for the first time at a WYD there was a Pentecostal-evangelical praise event, organized by a Portuguese pastor, Rodrigues Pereira, in conjunction with Catholic charismatics through their worldwide body CHARIS. The event, called “The Change,” attracted 45,000 people, mostly evangelicals, to the Benfica football stadium to hear from pastors and evangelists. It included a video message from the pope and an interview with Jonathan Roumie, a Catholic, by Joe Tosini, a Pentecostal pastor who founded John 17, a movement committed to Christian unity that works closely with Pope Francis.
Catholic involvement was predicated on the condition that the organizers avoided “egos and logos” and any kind of proselytism, and negotiations right up to the event were tense. In the end, this felt like a Portuguese evangelizing initiative piggybacking on WYD rather than part of it: the pre-publicity video didn’t even mention its ecumenical nature, and the WYD organizer claimed to know little about it. But the fact that it happened at all was remarkable.
The most prophetic Franciscan element of WYD 2023 was the bid to create and defend a space where searchers and sinners and those who don’t feel they quite fit can encounter the mercy of Christ. For Francis creating that space is crucial to the Church’s capacity to negotiate this “change of era” in which structures built to resist modernity must be renewed and replaced by others that respond to the Galilee of our day. Hence his constant insistence that the Church is a place for all.
One of the signs of these times is disaffiliation, the tendency of young people to shy away from the institutional aspects of the Church or even a Catholic identity, despite often professing a deep faith and love of Christ. Their repugnance at the “corporate” temptation to confuse evangelization with proselytizing is shared by Francis, who criticizes marketing strategies as “spiritual worldliness.” He used his first-day address in Lisbon specifically to warn the Church against proselytism, which he said was not Christian and always the sign of a diocese or organization in trouble. “It is Christian to invite, to welcome, to help, but without proselytism,” he told bishops, clergy, and religious at Vespers in the Ieronymite Monastery in Belém on August 2. “First they should hear the invitation of Jesus,” he added. “[R]epentance comes later, closeness to Jesus comes later.” Do not turn the Church into a customs house reserved for the righteous while everyone else remains outside, he warned. “No. That is not the Church. Righteous and sinners, good and bad: everyone, everyone, everyone.”
At the same time, Francis’s messages to the young people were deeply Christocentric, constantly inviting them to listen to Jesus, to hear His call, to let Him look at them and love them as they are, to let Him accompany them, to welcome Jesus into their hearts and to love others as He loves them. The pope’s final words at the vast Mass in Tejo Park were an invitation to surrender: “He knows each of your hearts, each of your lives; he knows your joys, your sorrows, your successes and failures. He knows your heart. Today, he says to you, here in Lisbon, at this World Youth Day: ‘Have no fear, take heart, do not be afraid!’”
Francis wants a Church that knows how to listen deeply to people as and where they are in order to facilitate their encounter with Christ. I saw a powerful example of this missionary approach in the south of Portugal in the days before Lisbon, when I was invited by the Chemin Neuf movement to address young people at their pre-WYD gathering.
A French movement with around four hundred consecrated members and thousands of affiliates, Chemin Neuf is Ignatian and charismatic, with a particular vocation to Christian unity and to the young. Many of the four thousand young people present at the gathering in Portimão were not Catholics, and some of the Catholics would probably not describe themselves as such. Yet all were present for an intense program of piety and praise, with long periods of silent meditation in Adoration, as well as an opportunity for Reconciliation, either in the form of sacramental confession or a non-sacramental sharing with experienced couples. The gathering even had permission from the bishop of Algarve to offer eucharistic hospitality to all who came, an extension of the permission Chemin Neuf has in its home diocese of Lyons.
During a July 6 interview broadcast on Portuguese TV, Dom Américo Aguiar sought to describe this kind of space in response to a question about whether non-Catholics and non-Christians were welcome in Lisbon. He said that in encountering difference (people of different cultures and religions) young people must embrace diversity as a richness, adding starkly: “We don’t want to convert young people to Christ, or the Catholic Church.” Dom Américo was upbraided for this by Bishop Robert Barron, who said every one of the five addresses he was scheduled to give in Lisbon was designed to evangelize. But this was to imply that Dom Américo was against evangelizing, which of course is the purpose of WYD—a purpose he himself has articulated over and over as enabling the encounter with the living Christ. What Barron has trouble understanding is that the bid to convert others to the Catholic Church—proselytism—contradicts evangelization, which is firstly about facilitating the encounter with Christ. It is Christ (the Holy Spirit) who converts, not the power of our persuasion; and we facilitate that encounter whenever we listen respectfully to the heart of another who thinks very differently.
As Bishop Barron’s reaction showed, this is delicate territory for the Church, and deeply threatening to those who cling to identity and difference. But for Francis it is key to evangelizing contemporary society: not a matter of apologetics and fine reasoning to persuade others of the superiority of the Catholic offer, but a conversion of hearts that follows from the encounter with Christ. As Bishop Barron himself put it in Lisbon: “The Church is there, as the pope keeps telling us, to listen, with love, attention, and compassion. And see, friends: that’s how the Lord Jesus Christ listens to us.”
There was nowhere better for developing that missionary vision than at the World Youth Day in Lisbon, which showcased a Church that is of its time—ecological, synodal, digital, and fraternal—a Church that is passionate about making space for all to encounter Jesus Christ. Francis’s final WYD has consolidated the future his pontificate has helped make possible.