Eleven pilgrims from the Diocese of Harrisburg journeyed together to Portugal this month to experience World Youth Day with Pope Francis and the universal Church, to deepen their faith, and to draw closer to the Lord.
In the midst of 1.5 million youth and young adults descending upon Lisbon’s parks and fields in prayer, processions and celebrations, they found personal spiritual fulfillment and the quiet and assured presence of God.
“World Youth Day is a pilgrimage, not a vacation, so we weren’t going into this for the sake of relaxation or rest. We were doing it for spiritual fulfillment in order to draw closer to Christ,” said Zack Haney, Diocesan Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
And in many ways, drawing closer to Christ came in the challenges of being a pilgrim: traveling to a foreign place with a foreign language, keeping up with a demanding itinerary in the heat of the day, and leaving behind the comforts of a hotel room to sleep in a field with more than a million other people.
“There were a lot of things that wouldn’t be considered leisurely; they were challenging, and that’s what makes things so fulfilling, where you can see you were able to do something because you trusted God and allowed Him to work through you,” Haney said. “We had to trust God every day in what we were doing, where we were going and the challenges we faced. Part of the pilgrimage experience was the mantra, ‘Let go, let God.’”
Pilgrim Luke Smith, 23, a member of St. Anne and Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Lancaster, told The Catholic Witness he was eager to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon after hearing about it from a friend and watching videos of previous celebrations.
“I knew it was something I had to participate in,” he said.
The itinerary for the group from the Diocese included Fatima, where they visited the tree where an angel visited the three shepherd children before the Blessed Mother’s appearance, and the Chapel of the Apparitions, the sight of the Marian apparitions.
They also participated in catechesis sessions for English-speaking pilgrims from around the world, and joined more than a million youth and young adults around the world in Lisbon for Stations of the Cross, Mass and a vigil of Eucharistic Adoration with the Holy Father.
“Being on pilgrimage challenged me because I had to remind myself that being in Lisbon was to be a pilgrim and not a tourist,” Smith said. “We didn’t sleep in or explore the beaches, we did a lot of walking and even slept outside one night. These were little sacrifices made to make the experience spiritual.”
He said he was especially excited for the vigil with Pope Francis and pilgrims from all over the world in Eucharistic Adoration: “It was powerful seeing everyone’s heart so focused on God.”
For Smith, the most moving experience was the Way of the Cross, presented by a performance troupe high atop scaffolding on the stage in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park
During the Stations, the pope encouraged the crowd to “tell Jesus what makes you cry in life.”
“Each Station had a testimony from someone or a choreographed fragility being faced by young people today: mental health, violence, solitude and concern about the destruction of creation,” Smith said.
Haney and Smith spoke about the various messages and themes presented during World Youth Day, including several presented during the catechesis sessions: care for the environment and its connection to our faith; social friendships and how to grow strong, personal relationships; and developing an interior prayer life.
“One of the things Pope Francis repeated was ‘Be not afraid,’ Haney said, “and that’s so appropriate not only for young people, but for all of us. There is a lot of fear and anxiety in our lives. The pope called us to consider the idea of stepping forward and to not be afraid, to take courage and trust in God, even when things are scary.”
Smith said the Holy Father also repeated the word “todos,” which is Spanish for “everyone,” a message to remind us that the Church doors are open to all.
“Bishop [Robert] Barron spoke on the importance of Adoration and conversation in prayer, involving ‘talking and listening, both words and silence.’ Ultimately, silence is the start to prayer.”
Smith expressed how blessed he was to be able to attend World Youth Day, while being mindful of those who could not be present.
“The joy from World Youth Day was life giving,” he said. “Nonetheless, I was reminded God was just as present for the ones who weren’t able to make it to World Youth Day as he was for the ones who were there. Praise be to God!”
For Haney, who attended World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, in 2011 as an 18-year-old, the experiences and spiritual fruits of the pilgrimage don’t end when pilgrims return home. Rather, it is now time to nurture those blessings.
“The young Church is hungry for their faith. They are active and invested, and they’re looking for community,” he said.
“Any sort of big event like World Youth Day plants the seeds, and now those seeds need to be nurtured in order to grow. That’s where the Diocese and our young adult groups step in; it’s our job to help the young people nurture those seeds,” he said.
(Photos courtesy of World Youth Day pilgrims.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness