God willing, the forthcoming World Youth Day in Lisbon will be my eighth experience: Manila, Rome, Cologne, Sydney, Madrid, Rio di Janeiro, Panama. Wow, how time flies. I’ve seen generations of young people go through the World Youth Day experience.
The preparations and the organization have changed throughout the years, but it still continues to attract young people whose lives are changed by this unique experience.
So how come somebody like me, at this age, is still participating in an experience that, as the title itself says, is for the youth?
Let us flash back to 1995, January 10 to 15, in Manila (Philippines). It was my first World Youth Day experience. I was a young Sister. We were engaged in the promotions in radio and television stations, in campaigns in schools and parishes. The whole Salesian family in the Philippines was greatly involved in the preparation and in the organization and animation. And this is very characteristic of every World Youth Day: the Salesian Family’s active participation. I am sure that if Don Bosco were alive today, he will be one of the most active supporters of the World Youth Day. After all, it is a significant expression of the Church’s care for the younger generations. And what a better way of coming together as a big worldwide Salesian Youth Movement than during the World Youth Days!
The World Youth Day offers activities and experiences that cater to the different needs and interests of young people.
The first experience is that of coming together. Participating as part of a delegation gives the youth pilgrim a sense of communion. Many of the pilgrims choose the experience of living with host families and host parishes, thus giving them the chance to get to know the people, the culture, and a lot of other things about the host-city from a very personal vantage point. For many, this is an opportunity for a mutual sharing of life and faith. A lot of them become friends for life. This makes me remember the many summer outings Don Bosco organized for the boys of the oratory. They passed from town to town, hosted in the townspeople’s homes, with the young boys providing entertainment and Don Bosco preaching a sermon or two. In fact, in one of those outings they went to Mornese. Maria Mazzarello was one of the most active organizers of the Mornesians’ hospitality to the very active youngsters.
Another important part of the World Youth Day experience are the moments of Catechesis, the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Holy Mass. From its very conception, Saint Pope John Paul II has envisioned the World Youth Day as an experience similar to the first Christian communities gathered together, learning about their faith from the apostles themselves, now represented by the Bishops who animate the catechesis sessions that develop the theme of the World Youth Day. Don Bosco and Mother Mazzarello believed that real education should take into consideration the formation of the whole person. Pope Francis would call that “educating the mind, the heart, the hands and feet”. However both Don Bosco and Mother Mazzarello believed that at the heart of our mission is proclaiming Christ. And the World Youth Day offers privileged moments of proclamation. The words of the Pope at different moments become deep experiences of getting to know our faith and how we can live it in our everyday life.
But it won’t be an experience for young people without concerts, art and cultural festivals, experiences of volunteering, and other activities that are very attractive to young people. It is nice to know and to experience first-hand that being a Christian doesn’t mean being stuffy and boring. Yes, there are so many possibilities to choose from and in each of them we really celebrate our faith. Both the oratory in Don Bosco and the workroom in Mornese were also places of feast and celebration, in a simple and familiar style, with the engagement of all. I remember the improvised carnival Mother Mazzarello and her companions organized for the girls! Didn’t Don Bosco say that the best way to open the heart of a young person is to share in the things that interest them.
So to answer the question I’ve posted at the beginning of this article, I am going to the World Youth Day in Lisbon because that is where young people are going. As Salesians, we are where the young are. The best expression of our care and attention is our presence.
I am sure that it will be a wonderful way of experiencing what Don Bosco once said: “You will complete the work that I begin: I sketch, you will put the colors”. Yes, during the World Youth Day we will together see and experience a world made up of different faces, languages, expressions, colors. We will see that what unites us is much, much more than what divides us. It will be something beyond our expectations. I hope that some years from now we will all remember August 2023 as an experience that marked our lives and made us believe that our lives matter, that no matter how unknown or invisible we feel, we are part of something greater than ourselves. When Jesus is present in our lives, we can cross bridges and build a more welcoming world where each one is valued, no one is excluded. Like Mary, we can all rise up, give our own contribution and face the challenges.
Pope Francis tells each young person that “Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive!” (Christus vivit n. 1). And isn’t this the dream of every young person? To be alive! This, I am sure will be what World Youth Day 2023 is all about: In the variety of colors, of languages, of nationalities there is a sense of communion, a sort of confirmation from God that He is with us, and that is why it is possible to celebrate. It is the reason of our joy. Mother Maria Domenica Mazzarello leaves us with a memorable message: “Joy is the sign of a heart that loves the Lord”
See you in Lisbon!