06 August 2023, The Tablet

World Youth Day – why the Church needs its Peter on Earth like it needs Mary in Heaven

Part Two: Diary of a Catholic seminarian attending World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal

World Youth Day – why the Church needs its Peter on Earth like it needs Mary in Heaven

“We find ourselves participating in a live stress test of Lisbon’s public transport system.”
Photo: www.plymouth-diocese.org.uk

The first few days in Lisbon have been a whirlwind. Our World Youth Day veterans tried to prepare us, but I was still caught on the back foot. I am sure the good people of Lisbon must be reeling; in fact, I am told that the official advice has been for people to stay in and work from home if possible, so you have to imagine the shock and awe of the early days of Covid to get a sense of our impact on this poor afflicted city.

Walking about town on our first evening is a slow business as we are constantly pausing to exchange greetings and wristbands with the other groups of pilgrims who fill the streets, waving their countries’ flags. Much sport is made of identifying the unfamiliar ones and looking out for rarities. A prize if you can find a New Zealander; first one to get a wristband from every continent wins, etc. My inner wallflower is wilting at this point, so I prefer to hang back and take in the grand surroundings. The party vibe is tremendous, and for most people evidently infectious. For now my “good-times” antibodies seem to be holding out, although I can still appreciate that there is something very good about it all.

A journey on the Metro at night reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in The Third Man when Harry Lime is being chased through the sewers in Vienna and the booming voices of an apparent army of policemen come echoing out of every tunnel. In this case our pursuers as they emerge turn out to be hordes of young, flag waving Poles, Mexicans, French, some chanting, some bellowing I know not what. Squeezed into the end of a carriage next to a mob of Portuguese in a paroxysm of what could be either patriotic or religious fervour, my eye is drawn to some of the haggard looking locals seated next to us. Red-ringed eyes gaze into nothingness, and I offer up a quick prayer for these blighted souls.

Travel about the city has been a challenge. When we try to make our way out to the City of Joy, where many of the talks and activities are set up, we find ourselves participating in a live stress test of Lisbon’s public transport system, as several hundred thousand pilgrims attempt to make the same journey at the same time. The heat is intense, (and will only get more so as the week progresses).

We arrive at the City of Joy a little shellshocked and sit down with an ice cream to collect ourselves. The consensus is that we will need something more substantial and go off to find one of the participating restaurants or shops where we can use our special QR codes to claim one of our prepaid pilgrims’ specials. Everywhere we go the queues are preposterous. Long story short it’s at least two hours and another trauma inducing bus ride back to the centre of town before a group of us are sitting about on the floor of a train station with a makeshift meal of cold meats and doughnuts from the nearby supermarket.

Later that evening, having battled through the throngs and made it past the police bag checks, we give up on the idea of finding our allotted zone in the park where the opening Mass is to take place, and take up a position outside beneath a giant screen. Here surrounded by Brazilians and Vietnamese we join Manuel, the Patriarch of Lisbon, in a celebration that makes our large-scale Masses back in Viana seem like private, intimate affairs. Walking back to our hotel through streets that are more alive than ever, I try to digest the experiences of the day. I suppose I might have expected pilgrimage to be a bit more… what? A bit more prayerful? It’s certainly not been that for me so far. I feel more connected to God in normal life when I can do my own thing and I don’t have a million strangers breathing down my neck. Not that I’m selfish mind, I just think I’m more spiritually attuned to the desert fathers.

As we pass one of the bars near the hotel our group is accosted by a handsome, clean-limbed Englishman who has just stepped out to take the air. Our friend evidently booked his Lisbon city break unaware of the horde of Catholic youths he would find there and has had it up to here by this point. The sight of a dozen or so, mainly teenage, papists on their way to bed is too great a provocation, and we are given an earful. Cravenly we hurry on, tacitly conceding some point about recent rulings of the US Supreme Court as we go.

The overwhelming number of pilgrims continues to be a challenge. While the transport system seems to become more manageable, getting into any of the events once you’ve reached them is a tall order. Arriving for a talk about Tolkien’s Catholicism we are at first delighted to find there is hardly any queue. That is until an apologetic volunteer comes out to inform us that the venue is already full inside and leads us a few hundred yards down the road to join the endless snaking line for something, maybe a ticket office? It’s not quite clear. We accept it as a bust and slip away.

Photo: Diocese of Plymouth.

When we finally do make it through the door for something it is into the sultry atmosphere of the very beautiful Basilica de Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, together with a few hundred very beautiful Germans. We are here for Nightfever: an evening of candlelit Adoration and praise music. Tired, footsore, and drenched in sweat, I sink into the most luxuriously cushioned kneeler I have ever encountered feel truly refreshed for the first time in Lisbon. I avail myself of one of the kindly German priests who are on hand for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; he seems to understand just enough of what I have to say but not confident of the words in English he absolves me in mumbled Latin that shades back into German towards the end.

It feels like we move into a new phase of proceedings with the first appearance of the Holy Father at Thursday’s welcome ceremony. Nothing is left to chance this time and our group begins to assemble at Edward VII Park a good three hours before kick-off. Our group passes the time playing card games and catching up on sleep in whatever scraps of shade can be found or improvised, while around us the crowd grows and grows. A proud Portuguese mother and her three children set up their blankets and parasols immediately in front of us. I am a little annoyed at first, but she soon proves her worth as a guard dog, snapping at the heels of unwary pilgrims who try to amble through our shared pitch.

By half past five we are looking out over a sea of Catholic youth. The flags alone are beyond counting, let alone the people. It is by far the largest crowd I have ever been in. A sudden sharp clamour cuts through the hubbub to tell us that he is here, and we all jump to our feet to see first the procession of black suited security guards, and then the white, heavy duty, Mercedes 4x4, with Papa Francisco himself sat on top smiling and waving back at us.

It is always exciting to see a celebrity, and I have seen a few (Hanks, Wakeman, Agutter… I could go on), but this seems quite different. Reflecting on it later I think first of the sense of oneness with a billion Catholics around the world who look to Francis as their spiritual father; but oneness in the sense of simple shared identity would be to put us on a par with football fans or the crowds at a royal wedding. This is surely something more than that.

What is it that makes the Pope so special to us? To me the answer seems simple and personal, it’s Peter himself; that most loveable saint with no claim to leadership other than that the Lord called and he said yes (and then no, and then yes again). I don’t know how to express this properly, it just seems to me like the Church needs its Peter on Earth like it needs Mary in Heaven, and this man, and the two-hundred and sixty-something men before him have been that, for better or worse, and for some reason that thought cuts right to the heart of me.

When the ceremony is over I manage to meet up with some of my Seminarian friends and we go for a few drinks and compare notes on our experiences so far. Taking the metro home later I share a carriage with a group of Czechs, belting out some of the songs of their homeland. To me they seem utterly delightful.

What do you think?


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