World Youth Day 2023: a Transformative Pilgrimage for Southwark Youth

Amidst the bustling crowds of Lisbon last week, over 50 young Catholics from the Archdiocese of Southwark came together to embark on an extraordinary pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2023. Their communal desire was to experience the love and mercy of Christ more profoundly in Word and Sacrament, through listening to the words of Pope Francis and through meeting young Catholics from across the globe.

Guided by the theme "Mary arose and went with haste," chosen by Pope Francis, the journey was filled with prayer, joy and a profound sense of being called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here, our Southwark young pilgrims summarise their journey.

The World Youth Day Pilgrims in Fatima

From the outset, Archbishop Wilson set the tone for the pilgrimage. On the first day he encouraged our group to deepen their friendship with Christ, reminding us that God's 'big idea' is to speak into our hearts and draw us closer to Christ through the example of the Virgin Mary.

Inspired by this call, we eagerly participated in various spiritual activities, attending a Vocational Fair, spending time in Eucharistic Adoration and engaging in a conference on 'Theology of the Body' by Christopher West. The day culminated In an Opening Mass celebrated by Cardinal Manuel Clemente, Patriarch of Lisbon.

On Day 2 our journey continued with a visit to Fatima, the sacred site where Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children - Saints Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their cousin, the Venerable Lucia dos Santos - over the course of five months in 1917. 

Walking the Camino with Fr Dermott  Archbishop leads a spiritual reflection on the Fatima Camino path

Director of Youth, Fr Dermott O' Gorman, leads the way on the Caminho dos Pastorinhos and Archbishop John offers his reflections en route

We prayed the rosary on the coach, were introduced to an examination of conscience, and Archbishop Wilson provided us with some beautiful insights on the history and spiritual significance of events at Fatima. As we walked the Way of the Cross (Caminho dos Pastorinhos) along the paths the children once trod, we felt a profound connection to their experience. Reflecting on the messages of Fatima - peace and reconciliation – themes that would again be highlighted by the Holy Father later in the week, we were reminded of the importance of embodying these values in our own lives, both during World Youth Day and beyond.

In the afternoon, we visited the homes of the 3 Fatima children in Aljustrel, realizing that they were ordinary individuals from humble backgrounds called to serve God In a unique way. The International Mass in Fatima that evening served as a powerful testament to the global nature of the Church, reminding us that despite our differences, we are united in our faith and commitment to Christ, truly present in the Eucharist. Standing before the tombs of Jacinta and Francisco, at the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary, we were moved by the realization of their tender age when they died, and yet, their immeasurable impact on the Church and the world.

A moment of great elation took place on Day 3, as Pope Francis made his entrance intoPope Francis arrives in Lisbon for WYD2023 Lisbon and we took part in the Welcome Ceremony at Edward VII Park. The excitement was palpable as we, alongside several hundred thousand young people from across the world cheered and chanted 'Esta es la juventud del Papa!' - This is the youth of the Pope!

Later that evening, with the sun beginning to set and light up faces and buildings in a warm glow, we were thrilled to hear Archbishop Wilson's Address at the ‘Mercy Vigil’ in Alameda Park, at the invitation of the Emmanuel Community.  The Archbishop spoke about the need not to live life on the surface, but to go deeper in our relationship with Christ, through listening to the “silent language of His love” in Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation We felt a strong call to respond to Christ’s invitation and our spirits were lifted through praise and personal testimonies. 

Friday 4th August brought us to the 'Rise Up' encounter and Mass in Odivelas. Over three days of the pilgrimage, participants in these catechesis sessions were asked to reflect on a major theme each day launched by the Holy Father, such as integral ecology or social friendship. On this particular day we considered the subject of 'Mercy’, and we were delighted to hear Bishop Robert Barron speak to us and help us embark on a journey of self-reflection, dialogue, and reconciliation, again with the opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration and confession, followed by Mass.

The next day brought excitement tempered with challenges, as we persevered through 37-degree heat to the Vigil. Many of us braved the elements, donning hats, umbrellas, and sunscreen, while others watched on a big screen at the hotel. Pope Francis, speaking to over a million pilgrims, reminded us that joy is missionary and should be shared with others. He encouraged us not to be afraid and to 'Rise Up' whenever setbacks come our way. Drones forming the words 'Rise Up' and 'Follow Me' formed in the sky, in multiple languages, and served as a powerful visual reminder of our call to embrace our faith and follow Christ.

  Waiting for Pope Francis to arrive by boat   'Rise Up' illuminated by drones

         The Vigil: waiting for Pope Francis              Drones light up the skies with 'Rise Up'

On the final day, after camping overnight, the Southwark pilgrims gathered for the Closing Mass as part of a congregation of 1.5 million people in Tejo Park.  Pope Francis urged us to shine forth and not be afraid, just as in the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. His words resonated deeply within us as he described young people as 'the hope of a different future.”  The announcement of a Jubilee for Youth in 2025 and the location of the next World Youth Day in 2027, Seoul, South Korea, filled our hearts with anticipation for what lies ahead.

Archbishop Wilson summed up his thoughts on World Youth Day:

"World Youth Day 2023 has been a marvellous witness to the love of the Lord Jesus in our world today: an image of the Universal Church, beautiful in its diversity, and united in its faithfulness to Christ. As the Holy Father reminded us in Lisbon, without exception, there is a place for everyone, with each person having a unique place in the journey of discipleship.

The passage from Sacred Scripture chosen by the Holy Father as the ‘motto’ for this year’s WYD was, “Mary arose and went with haste” (Lk 1:39). Those words remind us of the loving commitment shown by our Lady to bring encouragement and greetings to her cousin, Elizabeth. Our Lady, bearing the Word of God in her womb, rises up and goes in haste to greet Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Not only does she rise up out of love for Elizabeth, but she rises up as a true missionary disciple to bring the Good News to the woman whose son would go on to proclaim to the world, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29b). Our Lady has set us an example to follow: to be proactive in bringing the Lord Jesus to the world, so that the world may give witness to the One who takes away its sins. 

Throughout the week, through the liturgies, the catechesis, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and through the fellowship of over 1.6 million young people gathered together, the voice of the Lord Jesus , the Saviour of the World, was heard. It called the young people to meet him; to know him; to love him; and, to serve him. The young people came not only from different lands, but found themselves at different stages on their pilgrimage. Some would have known what it means to live in friendship with the Lord Jesus as the foundation for their lives; some knew something about the Lord Jesus, and his love, but were a little unsure; some may not have had a strong sense of the Lord Jesus in their lives, but felt an attraction to know and love him more. But, whatever their journey of faith, at this year’s WYD, the Lord Jesus invited them to go deeper: to draw closer, to take a new step, a next step, or a first step. Having returned now to their parishes and home communities, it is the task of our pastors and committed laity to help them move forward in faith, by teaching them the authentic Catholic faith, handed down by Christ to his apostles. The message of WYD reminds us, this faith must now be handed on to that next generation of disciples, to equip them to proclaim boldly the Good News of the Lord Jesus.

Cardinal, St John Henry Newman taught that we each have been created for ‘some definite service.’ We have not been created for nothing. We each have a mission. Our life of faith, is also a life of ongoing conversion. Faith takes us deeper into the meaning of our existence, because our very lives only make sense in relationship with Christ."

As we return home from this life-changing pilgrimage, we carry the memories of a transformative journey. A renewed sense of faith, hope, and love has been kindled in our hearts and minds, that we might discern our individual vocations and the definite service Christ has called each of us to. Our experiences in Lisbon have strengthened our commitment to live as witnesses of Christ's power in His Word and Sacrament, and to work to evangelise and spread His message of love, peace and mercy wherever we go.

Closing Mass with Pope Francis

The Closing Mass with Pope Francis in Tejo Park, Lisbon

Photographs from the World Youth Day 2023 Pilgrimage

With thanks to the Southwark WYD Comms Team for their Input and photographs