A spiritual utopia – World Youth Day 2023

Digital Media Officer at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Luegi Lopes, shares the experience of her first World Youth Day.

More than 350 pilgrims from across Catholic Dioceses in England travelled to celebrate World Youth Day (WYD). WYD is a gathering of young people from all over the world with the Pope. It is also a pilgrimage, a celebration of youth, an expression of the universal Church and an intense moment of evangelisation for the youth world. Although its Catholic identity is clearly evident, WYD opens its doors to everyone, no matter how close to or distant from the Church they are.

These are extracts from the blog written by Luegi Lopes while she was in Lisbon from 1 to 6 August 2023. The full blog posts first appeared on the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales website.

Day 1

I arrived in Lisbon not really knowing what to expect, having never attended a World Youth Day before. I knew there would be a huge element of joy and celebration and that’s exactly what I saw on the first day. The streets were packed with pilgrim groups, proudly waving their flags, singing and chanting in their native languages, expressing joy and mingling with one another. In every direction, you can hear the chatter of lively conversations. You will most likely hear the question “Where are you from?” followed by a proud declaration of one’s home country and a warm embrace. Avenida da Liberdade is filled with speakers, music fills the street as pilgrims celebrate together.

The Opening Mass. A sea of flags, contagious joy and an abundance of smiles. It’s hard to describe the feeling in words, but the best I can do is say I felt extremely happy and calm in the midst of all the chaos. The Cardinal of Lisbon, Archbishop Manuel Clemente, spoke so beautifully, welcoming everyone to Lisbon and encouraging us to go with haste as Mary did, rise up, and enjoy this special occasion. For thousands of young Catholics, it marked the start of a very special journey of faith.

Day 2

I met two pilgrims, Rebecca and Judith from Peru, they told me they had been waiting 10 years to come to a World Youth Day and were very excited at the prospect of seeing Pope Francis. I also spoke to Javier from Mexico. One of his many inspirations was our newest saint, St John Henry Newman. We bonded over an interest in the 18th century educationalist – an Anglican thinker who converted to Catholicism and was made a cardinal. Javier also shared with me a story about his favourite Saint, Beato Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, a martyr who died for his faith at the young age of 15. This is what World Youth Day’s all about… meeting new people, sharing stories that inspire you to grow in faith, and to think about those who inspire you on your own journey.

Day 3

So the moment had come… my first glimpse of Pope Francis in the Parque Eduardo VII. The atmosphere in the park was amazing. Groups gathered together in prayer – some crying, some screaming with joy! The impact the Holy Father made on the young people was remarkable. Everyone was elated, myself included.

The Welcome Ceremony was beautiful. In his address, Pope Francis told us the Lord has called us by name. Everyone is loved by God, he exclaimed, as we all chanted together “todos, todos, todos” – “everyone, everyone, everyone”.

Pope Francis at World Youth Day 2023
© Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

Day 4

Utopia. That’s the word me, Dilina and Filomena settled on to describe our WYD experience so far. I asked the two Salford Diocese pilgrims how they were finding WYD. “Like a dream,” they said, a safe space somewhat in contrast to the UK’s secularity and how this can make it difficult to proclaim one’s faith easily without being judged. “It’s like a spiritual utopia”, I said. Thousands of young people will remember this moment and take it back home with them, and, bit by bit, young Catholics will spread this feeling, creating mini-utopias in their own communities. I have no doubt I will try to do this myself.

Day 5

…The evening vigil began. A dominant theme, once again, was how we can deal with the many temptations of the world to get closer to God. Pope Francis spoke to us, encouraging us to never look down on anyone. The only time you should ever look down on someone, he emphasised, is when you are offering to lift them up. Then perhaps the most unforgettable and awe-inspiring moments of my first World Youth Day happened. Adoration. 1.8 million pilgrims were brought to silent prayer in front of the Lord. I’d never experienced anything quite like that before.

© Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

Day 6

Days Five and Six very much blurred into one as I only got a few hours sleep! Those who have been to a World Youth Day will understand. For a newcomer, like me, it was quite a shock to the system.

But what an experience. Seeing the sun set together, with thousands of pilgrims who has spent the night in prayer, was a very moving experience. It was almost as if God was talking to us directly, showing us His presence, through the beauty and nature of the world.

At 9am, Pope Francis celebrated the final Mass for World Youth Day. The Holy Father thanked us all, “obrigada”, he said, before instructing us all to get up, set off and do good.

WYD has been a brilliant experience. I am so grateful for the opportunity. I would say to any young Catholic, if you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in 2027, grab it with both hands so you can experience the joy and magic of World Youth Day for yourself.

Share more of the WYD experience through the social media accounts from England’s Catholic Dioceses.

Read the WYD 2023 account of Church of England CTE Enabling Group representative Annika Mathews.