World Youth Day “Wow”

Annika Mathews shares the inspirational experience of joining more than 350,000 young pilgrims in Lisbon.

Annika Mathews is a Church of England representative on the CTE Enabling Group. Here she shares her experience of attending World Youth Day 2023.

World Youth Day. Wow! What an amazing experience. If it is anything to go by, the present and future of the Church are alive and well. I had never seen so many young Christians from all over the world together. It was a truly incredible and hopeful experience, where sometimes being a young adult Christian can be somewhat isolating. 

Some groups travelled not only for World Youth Day (really a week of events) but on pilgrimage before. I travelled with the Carmelites so naturally, we spent a week in Avila (Theresa of Avila being a Carmelite nun) before going via Fatima to Lisbon. Read more about this part of my trip here.

World Youth Day (WYD) was a festival with hundreds of different activities on offer across Lisbon, be that talks, exhibitions, music concerts, museums or sports. Alongside this ran Forgiveness Park, the Vocations Fair and the City of Joy. On Wednesday to Friday, there were Rise Up catechesis sessions, designed to focus on themes of ecology, mercy and social friendship. The one I went to was on Mary and Elizabeth, the theme of this WYD being ‘Mary arose and went with haste.’ It was led by an evangelistic mission and I was surprised that the questions for discussion and charismatic worship that morning were indistinguishable from attending an evangelical Bible study. Saturday night was the vigil and sleep out in the open before the Missioning mass on Sunday to end the week.

Pope Francis tours the streets of Lisbon as part of World Youth Day

It was humbling to see the great respect and love for the Pope. I am not sure any other church leader would get such an enthusiastic welcome or attract such crowds. I was struck by the simple but heartfelt messages of encouragement he gave those gathered. They steered clear of church doctrines, ethics or anything divisive but rather focused on simple but effective key messages such as ‘Do not be afraid!’; ‘You are called by name’; ‘God loves us’; ‘We have roots of joy and should walk in hope and lift others up who have fallen’ and ‘Rise up, in haste as Mary did’. 

Though left longing for more at the Eucharist (not being able to receive), it was good to experience some beautiful sung Masses as well as liturgy and homilies in several different languages. I appreciated the stillness and peace in periods of adoration. 

I did not expect to be quite so captivated by the opportunity of visiting several relics. Present across the city were relics of Thomas Aquinas, Mary Magdalene, St Therese of Lisieux, St Theresa of Calcutta, Joan of Arc, Fernandes and John Paul II.

I felt led to write intentions and offer thanksgiving to John Paul II, who was crucial in initiating formal involvement of the Catholic Church in ecumenism. 

There was quite a Marian focus on the pilgrimage. Though I don’t personally pray to or with Mary, I believe I am developing an increased appreciation of how she becomes a person to intercede and bring people closer to Christ. I also see how the rosary can act as a helpful aid to prayer or centring.  

Sandrine from the Chemin Neuf community and Annika Mathews
Sandrine from the Chemin Neuf community and Annika. We first met at the Ecumenical Youth Gathering of the World Council of Churches Assembly in 2022

It was great to see many religious communities present at World Youth Day. Connecting with Catholic communities and the spiritualities they follow has really deepened my faith. The Chemin Neuf Community teamed up with the Anglicans for a week of events called Rooted in Unity. I only got to a few talks but was glad to see the ecumenical spirit present and unity discussed. Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell and Archbishop Ian Ernst (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Personal Representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome) led sessions among others. See the videos on the Archbishop of York’s Facebook pages. The Taize community held regular prayers as well as a service for unity and peace, all of which proved extremely popular. 

All in all, I’m very glad I went. I have plenty to ponder on and be inspired by as I journey on in life and faith.

Read the thoughts of the Digital Media Officer at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Luegi Lopes, after her first World Youth Day.

Main photo: © RC Diocese of East Anglia. Other photos from Annika Mathews.