Pope Francis was the center of the 16th World Youth Day, initiated by St. John Paul II, which took place this year from Aug. 1 through Aug. 5 in Lisbon, Portugal. Young people from all over the world, including a large number from the United States, participated in the event. It was a greatly anticipated event, which was most successful in bringing together young people to share their faith with each other and to be encouraged to return to their homes to evangelize. The message and presence of Pope Francis were enthusiastically received by the young people.
At a press conference on his return flight from Lisbon to Rome, Pope Francis expressed his enthusiasm for the event and his admiration for the young people present. He expressed, “There were more than a million people present. Even more: at the Mass yesterday, and the evening vigil, the numbers were calculated at a million and 4 or 6 hundred thousand. … The numbers were impressive. And it was very well prepared! Among the ones I have seen, this was the best prepared.”
Pope Francis expressed his often-stated opinion that there must be a strong connection between young people and the elderly. They complement each other and support each other in the vision of life. This obviously was an important part of his personal presence at the event. He said in the press conference, “And young people are a surprise. Young people are young, they act like young people, that’s life, but they try to look forward and they are the future. The issue is accompaniment, and the problem is to know how to do this, so they do not lose their roots. That is why I insist so greatly on dialogue between old and young, between grandparents and grandchildren. This dialogue is important, more important dialogue than between parents and children.”
The theme of the World Youth Day this year was, “Mary rose and went with haste” (Lk 1:39). These are the words St. Luke uses to describe how Mary, after she had been visited by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, went speedily to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary had just been told that she was to be the mother of the Redeemer and that Elizabeth, in her advanced age, was also with child in her sixth month. The visit was one of joy, which was evident in the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth as John the Baptist leapt with joy in Elizabeth’s womb. As Pope Francis expressed to the young people during the vigil of World Youth Day, “Joy is missionary, joy is not just for one person, it is for sharing with others. Let me ask you: those of you here, we have come to meet others, to find Christ’s message, to find life’s beautiful meaning, will you keep all this for yourselves or will you share it with others?” Joy is the center of the Gospel and of our faith, which is based in love. As Pope Francis said, “Mary goes because she loved, and ‘Whoever loves flies, runs and rejoices’ (The Imitation of Christ, III, 5). That is what love does to us.”
In his homily on the occasion of the solemn Mass for World Youth Day on the feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, Pope Francis spoke very insightful words, not only for the young people but for all of us, no matter what our age may be. These words truly unite us and are a bond between the young and old in understanding the meaning of life. He asked the young people what they would take back with them as they returned home from the experience of World Youth Day. He responded, in typical Jesuit style, with three verbs that were significant for the apostles’ encounter with Jesus at the Transfiguration: “to shine, to listen and to be unafraid.” Indeed, these words are so important for all of us, especially in the world in which we live today with so many challenges and uncertainties.
The pope reminded us that we are to shine by being a burst of light as Jesus showered a burst of light before His apostles. This light fills us with hope for ourselves and for others as we face the many failures and darkness before us in life. Pope Francis expressed that, “We do not radiate light by putting ourselves in the spotlight, for that type of light is blinding. No, we cannot illumine others by projecting a perfect, well-ordered, refined image of ourselves, or by appearing to be powerful and successful, strong but without light. No, we radiate light — we shine — by welcoming Jesus into our hearts and learning to love as he does.” This is exactly the type of light that Mary shone when she went in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and her light is what brought joy to that occasion.
Pope Francis expressed that we need to listen. The words of the Father from heaven at the Transfiguration were to tell the apostles that they must listen to His beloved Son. How important it is for us to listen today. With so much instant communication and the expression of political opinion, we rarely hear what others are saying and we rarely are heard ourselves. We cannot truly listen unless we listen to the Lord and hear His Word in our lives. All of our listening to others must be in this context of knowing that the Lord is present to us and speaks to us in many different ways.
Finally, the pope expressed that we are to be unafraid. After the voice of the Father is heard at the Transfiguration, the apostles are in fear and Jesus assures them, as He does on so many other occasions, “Do not be afraid!” There is so much that we fear in our world today, and there is so much fear that is presented to us. Without realizing it, one of the things that we are most afraid of is to be ourselves, the person God made us to be. We are afraid that it is not good enough or that it does not live up to the expectations of others. This is so evident in a culture which tries to accept ourselves, not as God made us to be in terms of our basic identity, but how we choose ourselves to be. St. John Paul II is so well known for his often-repeated refrain from the moment of his election as pope: “Do not be afraid!” These are the words of the Lord, and in a world that thrives on fear, we need to take them to heart.
Pope Francis set the next World Youth Day for 2027 in Seoul, South Korea. He expressed, “In 2027, from the western borders of Europe, World Youth Day will move to the Far East, and this is a beautiful sign of the universality of the Church and the dream of unity of which you are witnesses.” May our world take the message of this year’s World Youth Day in such a manner that we will move in hasteful joy to that time by shining, listening and being unafraid. It is the Lord who will be able to change things only if we cooperate with Him and, in so doing, be the joy that He wants in our lives and on those of all men and women.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
September 8, 2023