Diocesan pilgrims in Lisbon: Blue Eagle Ministries

eyanira Soto, a pilgrim with Blue Eagle Ministries, holds up a picture of Jesus, drawn by her sister, that was covered with prayer intentions. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Before World Youth Day began, diocesan pilgrims traveling with Blue Eagle Ministries stayed with Comboni Missionaries in Maia, attended a huge outdoor Mass in Porto, and journeyed to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima, visiting the site of the 1917 Marian apparitions.

This was the prelude to a whirlwind five days in Lisbon, where more than 1.5 million young Catholics from around the world gathered to celebrate their faith with Pope Francis.

During the papal welcome ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 3, the pope rode slowly in an open-air vehicle through the streets of Lisbon, waving to the jubilant crowd. Later, he made it clear who was invited to join the celebration, saying, “Todos, todos, todos” – Spanish for “Everyone, everyone, everyone.”

The moment was impactful for Omar Portillo, St. Augustine, Richmond. The message he got from the pope was that “God loves you no matter what. No matter what language you speak or what country you’re from, God loves you.”

The pope’s reception on the Lisbon streets was described by Olmer Pineda, Blessed Sacrament, Harrisonburg, as an explosion of life and energy. “It felt like the stones in the road were shaking,” he said. “It was a fresh breath of life. It was amazing. I didn’t think it would be as big as it is.”

Later that day, Bishop Barry C. Knestout gave a “Rise Up” catechesis session at São Mamede, an 18th century church in Lisbon. The subject was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As they prepared for the weekend, the bishop asked pilgrims to reflect on which role they felt they were playing in their own lives: the Good Samaritan, the injured man or the bystander.

Scenes of beauty and peace

On Friday, Aug. 5, Pope Francis presided at Stations of the Cross, and on Saturday, Aug. 6, pilgrims stayed overnight in Tejo Park after the pope led a prayer vigil with eucharistic adoration.

The pilgrims walked more than seven miles in 104-degree heat to reach their destination. When the Sacrament was displayed on the altar, more than a million people fell totally silent.

“You would think there would be noises over here or over there, with a million people in one place,” said Aylin Godoy, St. Augustine, Richmond. “But you could hear the crickets.”

Pilgrims slept outside after a nighttime prayer vigil led by Pope Francis. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Beatriz Muñoz, St. Gerard, Roanoke, said the experience was amazing. “The vigil was beautiful,” she said. “I go to nocturnal adoration once a month in my home parish, where we stay up the whole night praying. I didn’t get to go last month, and the first thing I thought when I saw the Holy Eucharist was, ‘Jesus, I miss you.’”

“Adoration is necessary in my life,” she continued. “I felt very emotional, and some tears rolled down my face. It was amazing seeing all those people with the same faith, all those young people kneeling and adoring God.”

“I felt that every one of those people was in love with God,” she added. “There were twenty minutes of complete silence, even though there were over a million people there. You felt like you were personally there with God, just you and him.”

After the prayer vigil, the pilgrims slept outside under the stars together. “I woke up a few times that night,” said Velsy Garcia Jimenez, Sacred Heart, Richmond. “One time was at exactly 4 a.m. I sat up for a minute, and I observed everyone and everything. I could see the stars, I could hear the crickets, and I saw a million people sleeping. It was a really peaceful moment.”

Victor Aguilar, Sacred Heart, Richmond, was inspired by the message Pope Francis delivered during the vigil. “The pope said, ‘we are the future, we are the ones who are going to change the world,’” Victor said. “For me, this is how it starts. By sharing a place to sleep at night – by sharing an experience – you form a connection.”

“You can’t change the world individually,” he continued. “Having connections with people all over the world – that’s how it begins.”

‘Be not afraid’

On Sunday, Aug. 6, Pope Francis surprised the pilgrims by making an unscheduled visit in the morning. When Beatriz heard that the pope was coming, she ran to the fence to watch him pass by.

“My heart was pumping really hard, and I was so happy,” she said. “He is our pastor, and he is leading us and guiding us to Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“He really cares for us,” she added. “He’s trying his best to get as close as possible to us, and we’re grateful.”

“It really impacted me, because on Earth, the pope is representing Jesus,” said Omar. “Not all people have the opportunity to see the pope in person.”

Mass was celebrated on the banks of the Trancão River in Lisbon by Pope Francis, along with 30 cardinals, 700 bishops and 10,000 priests. In his homily, Pope Francis repeated another message three times: “Be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.”

1.5 million pilgrims attended the closing WYD Mass, celebrated by Pope Francis, along with 30 cardinals, 700 bishops and 10,000 priests. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

For Beatriz, this message reflected the pope’s understanding of the way young people think. “There have been some points in my life where I do feel afraid to try new things,” she said. “By telling us not to be afraid, he is encouraging us to do the things we want to do.”

For Aylin, coming to WYD in the first place required courage. “I was scared to come, because my biggest fear is the ocean, so on the plane, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “But now, I’m already trying to see where I can sign up for 2027.”

Velsy was also nervous about WYD and the extent to which it would push her out of her comfort zone. “I’m one of those people that likes to be on time, that likes to know what’s happening next,” she said. “Ever since we’ve gotten here, it hasn’t been like that, and I’ve learned how to adjust – to leave it in God’s hands and go with the flow.”

“The journey was hard and hot,” said Omar, “but the experience was so nice.”

Commenting on his spiritual growth, Victor said that one takeaway was Pope Francis’ message on the nature of Jesus’ love. “Jesus doesn’t think of us as numbers, but as individual people,” he said. “He calls us by our names. He receives us as we are.”

On Sunday, the pope announced that the next WYD would take place in 2027 in South Korea. South Korea has one of the world’s fastest growing Catholic populations.

“I’m going to Korea,” said Olmer. “I’d recommend it to all young people, because it brings them out of what they’re used to and throws them into where God needs them to be.”


Read more about the Diocese of Richmond at World Youth Day 2023: 

Bishop Knestout: ‘great spirit of joy’ at World Youth Day

Office for Evangelization leads official diocesan delegation to World Youth Day

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