World Youth Day, held in Lisbon, Portugal from 1 to 6 August 2023, has recently come to an end. A large group of friars from the Custody of the Holy Land also attended, giving support, with their presence and their work, to this great event, now in its XXXVII edition.
The WYD was established by Pope John Paul II in 1985 and has always stood out as an occasion where millions of young Catholics from all over the world can meet and gather together to share their faith and the beauty of the encounter with Christ: more than one and a half million people took part this year in Lisbon.
The friars in their mission in Portugal had different tasks. The youngsters from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin were accompanied by fr. George Haddad and fr. Sandro Tomašević, while those from YouFra (Franciscan Youth) of Nazareth, with some parishes of the patriarch of the Galilee region, were guided by fr. Paulo Francisco Paulista. Fr. Johnny Jallouf, together with fr. Theodorus Herdistan, parish priest of Nicosia and fr. Bruno Varriano, led the group from Cyprus. while fr. Apollinare Swed led the Hebrew-speaking group. Fr. Mark Vertido and fr. Angelito di Giaffa were amongst the international volunteers for the sustainability of the events. Lastly, Fr. John Luke Gregory and fr. Carlo Molina were present as activity leaders of the JPIC - Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission.
“Mary set out and travelled in haste”
The topic of this WYD was “Mary set out and travelled in haste” (Luke 1, 39), the passage in the Gospel according to Luke which identifies what Pope Francis calls the culture of the encounter. Mary "sets out" and travels “in haste” into the mountains of Judea to meet Elizabeth. It is physical movement but also movement driven by faith: like the movement of many youngsters who went to Portugal from Palestine. “It was really important for our youngsters to get out of this country,” said fr. George Haddad, “of which we know very well the difficult circumstances, and to be able to get to know another reality and meet new groups who share the same faith. The catechism we followed in Arabic brought us together from all over the Middle East, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and it was a moment that was really enriching for all of us.”
The accounts of the friars
“This was the first time that youngsters from Cyprus, as the Latin church, were taking part in the WYD,” fr. Johnny Jallouf explained. ”And every visit to the Holy Places in this week full of events, was an occasion to renew our faith, as when we had the grace to enter to Sanctuary of St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the Custody but also the patron saint of this WYD. The Sanctuary protects the place where the saint was born, and we entrusted to him all these youngsters to help them discover their relationship with the Lord and the beauty of the faith, without losing hope for the future.”
“The most moving movement of this experience was the adoration of the Eucharist in the Campo da Graça (Field of Grace),” said fr. Sandro Tomašević, “when the whole multitude of people (there were more than a million of us!) were silent, united in the same prayer of adoration: the silence was really astonishing, it was a very thrilling sensation. I think that our youngsters saw first-hand what it means to find unity in diversity: Christ is truly present in the life of all the youngsters from all the countries in the world.”
“At first, just after leaving, the youngsters did not seem ready to cope with this type of journey,” fr. Paulo Francisco Paulista admitted, “but in Fatima there was the first change: There they felt Our Lady embracing them, they prayed the rosary and then they attended mass. The experience of Fatima helped them get into the right spirit. Then, in Lisbon, we were lucky enough to spend two nights close to the City of Joy, the “Reconciliation Park,” where 150 confessionals made by prison inmates had been set up: here our youngsters experienced the mercy of God.”
“The moment of reconciliation was very moving for many youngsters who had not confessed for years,” fr. Johnny Jallouf confirms, “and they were able to renew their intention to be young, active Christians, who transmit the joy and peace of the Lord. Many of them also emphasized the spirit of fraternity and sacrifice with which they faced up to the effort, especially at times where they had to walk quite long distances to reach the different venues of the events. “Sometimes the places were far away,” fr. Paulo confesses, “but it was a grace, because this, even more, plunged us into the dimension of the pilgrimage on foot, giving us the chance to arrive at our destination tired but happy, because while we were walking we were able to experience solidarity, support and fraternity.”