Sunday, July 30, 2023

Pope Francis heads to Lisbon to hear ‘untamed’ voice of youth at WYD

See you in August 2023!

As Pope Francis readies himself to visit Portugal to preside over World Youth Day (WYD), one of the largest global gatherings of young people in the world, akin more to a rock concert than a an event of prayerful reflection, one of his primary goals will be not just to send a message, but to listen. 

For Pope Francis, young people are not simply a priority, as if they are an agenda item that needs forcing or has to be added to a list, but rather they are an integral part of his vision because “they have a contribution to give today, they have a contribution in understanding reality,” said Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ. 

Speaking to the Catholic Herald, Fr Spadaro said Pope Francis’s goal, especially as he heads to WYD, “is to hear the voice of young people, to hear what young people have to say about the church, about reality, about the world. Voices that are not necessarily ‘tamed.’”

He recalled how during the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, youth were present who belonged to different faith traditions, or none at all, along with ardent Catholics, and that together these youths reflected on major current issues for the Church and the world. 

“The Pope wants spaces in which the Church reflects on itself and its role in the world, where you listen a lot and where the tensions and worries of young people are also heard, because they are especially important in interpreting the present,” Fr Spadaro said. 

Set to take place in Lisbon from August 1-6, this year’s international World Youth Day gathering holds the theme, “Mary arose and went in haste.” Pope Francis will travel to Portugal to participate in the event, which is expected to draw a crowd of roughly one million, including those belonging to other faith traditions. 

After his election to the papacy just over 10 years ago, Pope Francis’s first international trip, and first major global event, was the WYD gathering in Rio de Janiero in July 2013, which had been scheduled by his predecessor Benedict XVI, but which Francis took over after Benedict’s resignation earlier that year. 

For many, WYD in 2013 was their introduction to the new Argentine pope, and for Fr Spadaro, it was noteworthy that Pope Francis’s pontificate “began so openly with a trip, and it was World Youth Day.”

“What moved me was his desire to communicate; more than giving speeches, which he did, he had a conversation with questions and answers, he had an interaction,” Fr Spadaro said, saying Pope Francis’s frank and interactive way of communicating and relating (especially to young people) was striking, and is something that has become a characteristic aspect of his papacy. 

Another important aspect of Pope Francis’s relationship with young people, Fr Spadaro said, is that he “never sees them as an isolated category, as a category aside, a faction of the People of God.” Rather, he views young people within the framework of “fundamental relationships with other generations.”

Pope Francis has made intergenerational ties a hallmark of his papacy, often urging young people to spend time with their grandparents or to reach out to elderly people in their area. 

Fr Spadaro said he has always been impressed with Pope Francis’s insistence that “the elderly have dreams and the youth can have a vision for the future,” as people usually tend to think the opposite. 

He recalled how the Pope, in his first private Mass with members of the Jesuits – which happened during WYD in Rio – insisted that the event was not “the exaltation of youth as youth,” but an occasion to highlight “how young people are in close relationship with all other generations, especially the generation of the elderly”.

For the Pope, young people “are not the future of the church, but the present,” Fr Spadaro said. 

St John Paul II instituted WYD in 1985 as a way to reach out to young people and engage them in church life. The first international WYD event was held in Rome in 1985, and while observed annually at the local level, major international gatherings have taken place in different cities around the world every three years or so since.

According to Cardinal Manuel Clemente, the Patriarch of Lisbon, the choice to hold WYD in Portugal this year is indicative of Francis’s affinity for the country, which will soon have six cardinals with the recent nomination of the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon, Américo Aguiar – who will receive his red hat in the upcoming September 30 consistory. 

That is a relatively high number of cardinals in respect to the country’s Catholic population; countries like Mexico or Brazil with much higher numbers of Catholics have proportionally many fewer members of the Sacred College. 

“In recent years, there have been two occasions here in Portugal that are important not only for Portugal, but for the Church,” Cardinal Clemente told journalists during a media roundtable on WYD. 

The first of these events was the centenary of the famed Fátima apparitions in 2017, and the second is WYD and the preparations it has involved, he said, saying these events have given Pope Francis a broad glimpse of the Portuguese church and its pastors. 

After visiting Fátima for the 2017 centenary anniversary, during which he canonized two of the children to whom the Virgin Mary appeared, Francis named the bishop of Leiria-Fátima, António dos Santos Marto, a cardinal. Now, ahead of his second visit to Portugal for WYD, he has given a red hat to Bishop Aguiar.

Cardinal Clemente said the Pope’s attention to Portugal, including his choices of cardinals, is “important for us and also for the church.”

In terms of Pope Francis’s schedule, Cardinal Clemente said local church authorities are working hard with the help of thousands of volunteers “to make it the best” experience possible for those who attend. “We want to open to everyone with great joy,” he said. 

After arriving on August 2, Pope Francis will meet separately with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Prime Minister António Costa, as well as with representatives of the civil authorities and the diplomatic corps. He will also meet with the country’s bishops, priests, religious and seminarians.

He is scheduled to meet with university students and youth belonging to the Scholas Occurentes organization prior to inaugurating WYD at its official opening session on August 3. The following day he will spend roughly half an hour hearing the confessions of young people before meeting with charity workers. He will then have lunch with a group of around 10 youths from different countries and in the afternoon will preside over the traditional WYD Via Crucis.

He will visit Fátima on Friday, August 5, where he will pray the Rosary with young people who are sick, after which he will return to Lisbon and in the afternoon will meet privately with members of the Jesuits in Portugal before presiding over the WYD prayer vigil.

On August 6, his final day in Fátima, Pope Francis will celebrate the closing Mass for WYD and will meet with volunteers assisting with the event before returning to Rome that evening.

According to Cardinal Clemente, the most important aspect of the event will be the Pope, whose presence is not only important for Lisbon, but for all those who attend. It will be a moment “that will leave them happy because of his presence,” he said. 

Speaking of the Pope’s attention to the youth, Fr Spadaro said he is moved by the fact that often when Pope Francis meets with young people, “he has a pen in front of him. On several occasions I’ve noticed him taking notes.”

Even though a prepared speech had been written beforehand, “he opens a door, a door of communication,” which doesn’t necessarily involve tossing his speech aside, but “much more often it involves integrating it and perceiving the answers of the youth,” he said. 

“The questions that youth have are known beforehand and are often prepared, but for the Pope,” while the prepared questions are a source of reflection, “he feels like he must – looking at the person in the face, looking at young people face to face – enter into a dialogue and into a relationship,” Fr Spadaro said. 

Children often ask questions that are hard to answer, so engaging these questions requires “an openness of heart,” he said. “This is something the Pope is very sensitive to, the freshness of the attitude of young people to be restless, to be uneasy. He feels the need to respond to this restlessness.”

“He feels an immediateness, a freshness, a restlessness, to which he feels like he must respond also by tossing his speech, or interjecting,” Fr Spadaro said, insisting that “it’s not so much tossing the speech, not so much a theoretical need, it’s a need of a relationship: if you have in front of a person you need to look at in the face, you need to respond to their question directly. This is it.”

In terms of what message Pope Francis might give during WYD, Fr Spadaro said that more than sending a message, the Pope wants to listen. 

“He feels that the testimony and participation of young people is important… young people have a particular way [of seeing the world] that must absolutely be heard” in an unfiltered way, he said.