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WYD 2023 was a sign of great hope for the Church in the secularized West

I went to Lisbon in hopes of seeing a young and vibrant Church, and I was not disappointed.

Pilgrims fill Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 4, 2023, for World Youth Day Stations of the Cross. Credit: CNA/Bruno Seabra/Flickr JMJ 2023

This past week I was an eyewitness to hundreds of thousands of young Europeans and Americans adoring the Blessed Sacrament, waiting in long lines for confession, and proudly professing their love for the Church. In a Western European capital, I regularly parted with new acquaintances by saying “God bless” without receiving odd stares.

No, I haven’t been hanging out with Doc Brown and taken his DeLorean to 1955; I was at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, a sign of great hope for the Church in the secularized West.

Established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987, World Youth Day is intended for Catholics aged 16 to 35. As I am in the higher age range and will be unable to participate in World Youth Day in the future. I decided to sign up to go to Lisbon with a group from St. Anne’s Collegiate Church in Krakow, Poland, where I live. In both countries where I hold citizenship, the United States and Poland, the past several years have been difficult for Catholics, with clerical abuse scandals prominent in the media and the pandemic, leading to an overall decline in religious practice; such trends are common to the Church throughout the West, including Latin America.

I went to Lisbon in hopes of seeing a young and vibrant Church, and I was not disappointed. During my stay in Lisbon, I felt old. Most of the pilgrims in my group were university and high school students; many of the young Poles I met in Portugal initially referred to me as Pan (“sir”) in the formal third person rather than the familiar ty (“you”). I even ran into my former students. But rather than making me depressed, seeing the fact that a thirty-something was significantly above the average age of the participants at a huge Catholic event gave me hope for the Church’s future.

One of the most beautiful things about the Church to me is that she is truly universal. In Christianity, there are no Kafirs or goyim; she is represented by every race, tongue, nation, and ethnic group. This was evident in my favorite informal World Youth Day tradition, the exchange of gifts representative of a one’s home country or diocese with other pilgrims. I brought keychains with Krakow’s coat of arms and laminated holy cards with images of St. John Paul II and St. Albert Chmielowski’s painting Ecce Homo. In exchange, I got, among others, a bracelet with a wooden cutout in the shape of the map of El Salvador from young Salvadorans who complimented my Spanish and a can of pate from French pilgrims. At World Youth Day, I met pilgrims of different skin colors and with different traditions, but as faithful Catholics we felt a kind of unity more intimate than perhaps any other.

I was encouraged by how well-represented the European countries and the United States were. After all, the media constantly slap us with reports signaling that Christianity has no future in the West. While rates of religious practice in Poland are perhaps higher than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere, the nation has experienced a decline in new vocations in recent years, while growing numbers of high school students opt out of religious education classes. Yet the Polish turnout at World Youth Day was a huge success, with more than six times as many Poles attending as had been expected just last year: in 2022, the Polish WYD Organizational Committee had expected just 4,000 Poles would come to Lisbon, but about 25,000 ended up doing so. I heard Polish on the streets constantly and met numerous groups from Polish parishes in Britain, the United States, and Canada, evidence that the Church is successfully passing on the faith and Polish culture in the diaspora.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the impressive turnout of French pilgrims. During his visit to France in 1980, St. John Paul II asked: “France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?” Forty-three years later, the crisis of the faith in the land that gave the Church such great saints as Joan of Arc and Bernadette Soubirous and thinkers including Henri de Lubac and the Venerable Jerome Lejeune is even more acute. Before the pandemic, a paltry 29 percent of the French identified as Catholics, while just 8 percent of French Catholics “regularly” attended Mass (much lower than rates of regular worship among French Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists).

Yet more than 42,000 French pilgrims showed up at Lisbon; only the Italians and Portuguese were more numerous. Although Paris is more or less equidistant between Lisbon and Krakow, the site of the last European World Youth Day, more French pilgrims came to the Portuguese capital than to the Polish city (about 30,000 showed up at the latter). This is particularly impressive when we consider that in the seven years between Lisbon and Krakow pandemic-related restrictions led to a global slipping of religious practice, while in 2021 a government report on sexual abuse in the Church in France was released amidst hostile media coverage.

Sadly, many more pilgrims from poor nations in Africa and Asia could have attended World Youth Day if not for prohibitive costs and being denied visas. Hopefully, in future editions of WYD the Church will intervene to stop such injustices. However, one hopeful sign evident everywhere was that immigration infuses new life into the local Church: I saw one American parish consisting entirely of youths of South Asian descent, while most Scandinavian pilgrims I encountered were of Asian, African, and Polish background. There are now many Belarusians and Ukrainians active in Poland’s Catholic Church; there were none in the group with which I went to Lisbon, although there was one young lady from Senegal who had settled in Poland.

In recent years, many Catholics in the West have quoted Joseph Ratzinger’s famous prophecy that the Church of the future would be tiny but vibrant. Thus, they often conclude, Catholics should adopt a “Benedict option” and turn insular. The future Pope Benedict XVI’s prediction was intended to be descriptive, not normative, and it cannot be treated as an excuse to selfishly keep the Good News to ourselves.

Jesus Himself said that “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10). Pope Francis’ opening homily was an excellent response to the temptation of elitist insularity; the pontiff emphatically noted that the Gospel is for todos, todos, todos (“everyone”).

Likewise, during a Q&A session for Polish pilgrims (in Lisbon, Polish pilgrims had an entire soccer stadium to themselves), Cardinal-Elect Grzegorz Ryś wisely explained that some people (he cited the example of those sexually abused by priests) have a negative experience of the Church, which we have no right to challenge. Instead, it is our duty to provide them with an alternative, joyful experience of the Church.

In 2023, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of the faith. In Fatima, Our Lady told three shepherd children: “In Portugal, the dogma of the Faith will always be preserved.” May the spirit of Fatima and spirit of Lisbon 2023 inspire renewal and new enthusiasm in the Church.

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About Filip Mazurczak 79 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.


  1. Seriously?
    A DJ priest, Eucharist in tupperware, lame entertainment, lame homilies, Archbishop Rys, Pope Francis…
    Young Catholics are OK with mediocrity.

    • Precisely, child abuse on a grand scale and the foolhardiness and evilness of those who fail to understand phoniness and child abuse for what it is.

    • This is the sick kind of negative whining that SSPX people issue every WYD. They hate WYD, because it is a great success of JP II, who excommunicated their tiny little god, Lefebvre. So every WYD, they try to denigrate the whole thing. They complain about everything. In such a large crowd, certain steps have to be taken. But the Pharisaical mindless detractors try to elevate every such measure into a monumental “sacrilege” no matter how minor or temporary the measure is. This is precisely what Jesus warned us against. Do not pay attention to the Pharisees.
      I am a strong supporter of tradition and the TLM, but this sort of mindless criticism tends to pervert the whole message of Jesus into extreme formalism.

      • I am neither an “SSPX person” nor a “whiner”, but I am compelled to point out that it is irrational and unjust to dismiss as “Pharisaical” the abuses and sacrileges at the Lisbon WPD which are factual and well-documented by the very young people who attended and who called attention to them of priests who were also there. It is also irrational and unjust to ignore that a WYD planned for over three years did not take into account that a fitting tabernacle for excess hosts would be needed instead of a “Tuppernacle” of used plastic packaging crates or that the Blessed Sacrament would be handed out in plastic Ikea bowls by lay people when hundreds of idle priests and bishops were present. Abuses and sacrileges like those documented in Lisbon have been a hallmark of WYDs from the very beginning with innumerable accounts of consecrated hosts trodden under foot, thrown in trash cans, and otherwise outraged and defiled. The fact that they have continued for 30 years is a scandal and a disgrace. If WPDs are such “a great success of JPII”, why is it that the several generations that have attended them are distinguished by their 70%+ denial or ignorance of the Real Presence and their overwhelming rejection of infallible Church teaching on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage, as every annual CARA survey over this time has demonstrated?

      • You are completely wrong wrong. Interestingly, an article in OnePeterFive posted this very day describes WYD as “anti-culture”, stating “Modernity has created something new and hideous – “anti-culture” – which affects cultures – whether Christian cultures or not – like poison affects health. Anti-culture dissolves culture itself and dismantles it. We saw this on display at World Youth Day, and even, to some degree, the whole concept of World Youth Day is susceptible to anti-culture.”

  2. This latest and previous WYDs have that the global Church of the future is the complete unfolding and full implementation of Vatican II reforms especially in the Mass of the Roman Missal of 1969, and the total rescinding of that of 1962!

  3. So, if you’re declaring this WYD a smashing success, you might treat us with some predictive changes we’re likely to see taking place in the Catholic Church over the next five years or so.

  4. Concerning your comment on “In Portugal, the dogma of the Faith will always be preserved.” and pessimism. I prefer to remain in reality. Not see through rose colored glasses. This prediction of the the dogma of Faith will always be preserved was latter amended by Our Lady to Sr. Lucia. Our Lady told Sister that if Portugal approves abortion, the dogma of Faith would NOT be maintained. Portugal did approve abortion. It’s also very telling that the original apparition of Fatima, the Angel of Portugal demonstrated what God’s expectation for our reverence toward Our Lord in Blessed Sacrament must be. The angel went to his knees and bent over putting his head to the ground and taught the famous prayer he demanded them to say over and over. This adoration was not shown as the Lord was placed in common storage boxes and common potato chip bowls! Thousands of clergy present and yet lay eucharistic ministers were used which is rightly the duty and obligation of the clergy. Our Lady of Fatima said sexual sins, and immodest dress were sending more souls to Hell than anything else! There were girls in string bikinis at this World Youth Day and other immodest dress such as the dancers on the main stage. For every conversion at WYD, how many sins are committed. How many are still Catholic 10-20 years down the road? How many souls go to heaven as a result. That should be the ultimate goal, Heaven. Our Lady taught Hell is real at Fatima, how many youth heard that message at WYD? It’s hard to say. Of course the professional youth ministers are all about this. But no one can say how many souls are lost vs. how many are saved. Good intentions are not enough.

    • Bravo, tad. The WYD’s are no substitute for authentic catechisms and traditionally zealous Catholicism. The sacrilege’s and blasphemies you note should tell anyone that these are corrupt and evil manias, catering to emotional exhibitionism and folly

  5. As for the optics, only 1% of Catholics took part in the ballyhooed “synods”; and only 1/10 of 1% of Catholics took part in the WYD open air Mass in Lisbon (about 1.5 million). Just doin’ the Mass, I mean the math, or whatever…Forsooth, and what really of the other 99.9%?

    Mazurczak’s article is well-informed (as always) and maybe encouraging…

    But yours truly is now waiting to hear if the local response is anywhere near the same as for the 2000 WYD in Rome with St. Pope John Paul II….At a small parish near the rain forests of Western Washington State, the few returning participants ignited their friends back home into spontaneous (!), 75-member Sunday-evening gatherings (!)—working out of the Catechism (the real message!) and then spending the weekdays evangelizing their siblings and even their own parents!

    Real dinner-time leaven!

    (Yours truly learned of this happy outcome as a member a 2000-2004 archdiocesan pastoral council which conducted twelve widely-dispersed “listening” sessions—and which itself also was not mistaken for a “synod of bishops.”)

  6. A sign of hope? Rather a sign of decay. Sixty years without catechesis bears its rotten fruit. But wasn’t that in the cards all the way along?

  7. Thank you for dwelling on the many signs of hope and virtue in our Church (Phil 4:8); your perspective is edifying and much needed. There are so many Catholics (such as those in this comment section) who ignore St. Paul’s admonition and can only obsess about human sin and imperfection. It is by keeping our eyes on Christ that we can maintain a trustful optimism.

  8. yes, this is wonderful…putting the Beloved in storage boxes, then using for Adoration…

    A young pro-lifer is drawing attention to the disrespect shown to the Blessed Sacrament after consecrated hosts were stored in stacked boxes for adoration at the World Youth Day celebrations last week.

    [foto of the mock ‘monstrance’ set up under a tent at WYD]

    Savannah Dudzik from Florida, who flew to Lisbon to participate in the global Catholic youth event, said she was “infuriated” when she saw “God in a box” on Saturday evening after returning from a “praise session” featuring “liturgical dancing” at the Campo da Graça.

    …the 23-year-old Catholic said that WYD was otherwise an “amazing experience,” especially since “there is no larger event of Catholic youth,” mirroring how “truly global the Catholic Church is with people from every part of the world.”

  9. more hope from the youth, a participant of WYD:

    Dudzik said that she was “fuming” as she and her friends walked back to their campsite, but instead of “purposeless anger” they decided “to do something about it.”

    “We weren’t going to protest, or post on our social medias that this was an outrage (although I do believe there’s a time and place for that). We weren’t going to gossip to others about it,” she noted.

    “We were going to take our rosaries, go back to Jesus and say a Rosary in reparation for sins against his Sacred Heart. So that’s what we did,” Dudzik recounted.

    Dudzik said that she has written to WYD organizers, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican but has yet to receive a response.

    “And we are doing this while talking about a Eucharistic revival!” she commented. “The organizers had three years to plan for this event. Did they not foresee the possibility of thousands of consecrated Hosts being left over after Holy Mass?

    “The fact that 70% of Catholics don’t even believe in the True Presence makes this case even sadder. How are we, the youth, supposed to believe that Jesus is truly here when this is how He is presented?” she asked.

  10. Thanks for these comments. They help me articulate my discomfort with the pollyanna feel of the article.
    I’m back to the Crisis Magazine podcast, “WYD – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

  11. Not completely against all this, but somethings need to handled better. It should be an event that has worked a lot of this out since it’s only occurred how many times? Just because I am critical of some it, does not mean I think it should be ended. Just learn and improve it. More attention to details, and planning. By now the proper handling and distribution of the Eucharist should be something that has been worked out by now. With all the clergy, there really should be no need to have lay people do this. It downplays the need for the priesthood, and is form of clericalism (look at what we let you do!). Pandering to lay people. A cop doesn’t hand his gun to someone have them do what is their vocation. The young are not the problem, it seems to be the adults who need to do better. After each WYD, there should be meetings as to what was good, what worked, and where can we do better. Implement improvements and better controls. Seems like each one is the first rodeo for these folks. But no one is permitted suggest anything? Our culture has really gotten soft, to the point no one wants to hear anything critical. How things have changed since I was young. People are very sensitive at the slightest suggestion something was wrong. Sort of sad. Been part of large events in my career. Always tried to improve things and make them better. Always kept what was good and especially when you know ahead your going to do the exact same thing next time. Not rocket science.

  12. Mazurczak’s enthusiasm of the WYD is likely a valid reflexion of the enthusiasm of the pilgrims, not necessarily an affirmation of all the messaging. Messaging often cryptic, key words ‘doctrinal intransigence’ mixed in with voluminous positive exclamation.
    Raymond Arroyo’s renowned Papal Posse held forth last night, all three expressing concern over the WYD focus on the environment, pop music Masses, young girl posing as Christ crucified [a ghost from the past then strongly criticized by Mother Angelica].
    Of the three Fr Gerald Murray, a JCD from the Gregoriana had a keener opinion of the adverse doctrinal path the Church is being taken, with apparent papal approval. Royal and Arroyo agreed in substance. That the underlying focus, camouflaged with quoting of scripture was on reserving judgment, couched in terms of no restrictions, absence of repentance. A repeat of the Church of Christ absent Christ.

  13. I happened to be traveling in Portugal during this so-called religious experience. Was it the Pope’s desire to spread COVID to masses and have drunk young adults creating chaos in a city? If so, it was a huge success.

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