Tens of thousands of American pilgrims traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, for World Youth Day Aug. 1–6, a trip some attendees called “a dream,” “a blessing,” and “incredible.”
World Youth Day, a global event for young people that takes place about every three years, offers a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ through liturgical celebrations, faith sharing, catechetical sessions, networking, and prayer with the Holy Father.
One week before the international celebration, more than 28,600 young adults from 1,300 groups were registered to head to Lisbon from the United States, more than twice the amount of U.S. attendees who went to the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama, according to numbers from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
‘Like a dream’
Stacy Escobar, 26, said her experience at World Youth Day was “like a dream.”
Traveling with a group from the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, Escobar said that one of her favorite moments from the trip was during an outdoor eucharistic adoration event set up specifically for travelers from the United States.
“That was probably one of the most beautiful moments of eucharistic adoration I have ever seen,” she said.
“The host was glowing in the monstrance. It was beautiful. The sunset was amazing. And just seeing everybody and all the international flags, even though everybody came from the United States, the diversity was just beautiful,” Escobar said.
She said that the park where adoration took place was “packed.”
“It was amazing. There must have been like 10,000 people or something like that,” she said.
‘He calls us right now’
Thirty-two year-old Father John Garabedian led a group of young people from the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, to Lisbon only two months following his ordination to the priesthood.
Garabedian said it was “pretty cool” to be asked to help lead the group of young adults to such a large event, given he was only ordained two months ago.
“Pope Francis’ words during his opening address confirmed this when he said that God calls us each by name and he calls us right now, exactly where we are at, implying that he can still use us even in our imperfections and inexperience,” he said.
“It was encouraging to see other young adults living the faith and making the long journey to Lisbon. It showed me that the faith is still alive in the hearts of young people and many are longing for Jesus and true happiness,” he said.
Floridian Savannah Dudzik, 22, told CNA that one of the most memorable moments from her trip to World Youth Day was seeing Pope Francis up close.
“I never really thought that I would be able to see the pope up close in my lifetime,” Dudzik, who lives in Tampa, said. “We were within a few feet of him.” She traveled with a small group of her friends who are from different states.
Dudzik said seeing Pope Francis was “incredible” because “in what other situation do a million people get so excited to see a man who’s in his 80s?”
“It’s because it has to be something more … He’s witnessing to the word of God. That’s why we’re so excited,” she said, adding: “World Youth Day showed the Catholic youth that the Catholic Church is truly universal.”
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An Eastern-rite Catholic, Julie Lattouf, 30, traveled to World Youth Day along with almost 40 young adults from the U.S.’s only two Maronite eparchies in a trip that she says was a “blessing.”
“When you see all these people coming together from all parts of the world for God, and they’re so happy, it’s like, wow, amazing,” she said.
Lattouf said that she focused on her spiritual growth during World Youth Day while taking time off from her busy schedule at home.
“The most important thing in this life is not your work or anything else; it’s your relationship with God,” she said. “There were so many ‘God moments’ on this trip.”
One of those moments came for Lattouf when she found herself in Lisbon’s Church of St. Anthony without initially knowing the name of the church, a destination she yearned to visit for her great devotion to the saint.
“I was like, ‘no way, you’re kidding me,’ when I was told it was St. Anthony’s church,” she said. “This trip was so amazing.”
Texans show up
Among the tens of thousands of U.S. pilgrims, the state of Texas made an impressive showing, with the Diocese of Dallas accounting for some 1,000 pilgrims all on its own.
Josh Salinas, director of youth, young adult, and campus ministries for the Diocese of Dallas, told CNA that the large group from his diocese represented a massive increase from the number that attended from Dallas in 2019, when only about 25 came.
“There’s a desire for community, not just at the local level, but globally as well, recognizing that we’re united in prayer, we’re united as a faith community,” Salinas said.
Several Dallas pilgrims, most of whom had never been to a World Youth Day before, had life-changing experiences.
Eduardo de la Cruz, 31, told CNA it was “the trip of a lifetime.”
A parishioner at St. Luke Parish in Irving, Texas, de la Cruz said he saved up for a while to be able to afford the trip and prepared himself by working out regularly over the last few months to improve his fitness ahead of all the walking he knew he’d be doing.
De la Cruz, who was partially inspired to make the trip thanks to the enthusiasm of media evangelist Chris Stefanick, said he had been discerning whether to set about entering the priesthood. He said the experience of World Youth Day strengthened his resolve, gave him confidence to move forward in the next steps in his discernment, and also helped to push him toward trying to join the Dominican order.
“I felt that there was a reason that I was excited to go to World Youth Day, that there was a reason for me to go experience it, that there was a message for me … I had plenty of reasons not to go. But then it was just, like, having that faith and confidence that there’s a reason I needed to go,” he explained.
De la Cruz said it was powerful for him to hear the Argentinian pope speak to the crowds in Spanish, which de la Cruz speaks fluently. He said he appreciated the pope’s message encouraging the young people to have an “honest conversation” with God.
He also said it was gratifying to see so many of his fellow Texans enjoying themselves and deepening their faith in Lisbon.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas, and I think that was true at World Youth Day, too,” he chuckled.
For married couple Brad and Chanel Moran, both 32, this was not only their first World Youth Day but also their first visit to Europe.
“Lisbon is about as different as it could be from Dallas,” Brad said, laughing. “It’s very hilly, very walkable, very easy to use public transport. Old, too. Dallas is very new, and everything about Lisbon is very old.”
Attending with about 14 others from their home parish, St. Patrick’s, Brad and Chanel said they went seeking a deepening of their own faith, a strengthening of their marriage, and a better sense of community with their fellow Catholics.
They said the homilies from the various bishops and cardinals who celebrated Mass were moving to them, as was their visit to Fátima. The couple from Dallas told CNA that they felt right at home among the crowds and that they considered the experience a “small taste” of heaven.
Chanel said it was great to be reminded that “we come from all different cultures and backgrounds, but still we’re one, regardless of language.”
“You saw the whole Church, and how we worship the same God through Jesus. And that manifested in all the joy that was around, everyone singing through the streets,” Brad added.
“It didn’t seem like a single person was having a bad time, although the pilgrimage part of it was rough. We were walking eight miles one way sometimes. It got really hot, honestly, randomly. But it’s said that heaven is praising Jesus all the time with song, and [World Youth Day] was just a glimpse of that.”
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
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