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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