When World Youth Day (WYD) Lisbon 2023 began, the great controversy surrounding it was whether the event had lost its evangelizing flavor, given the controversy surrounding Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar’s statements on interreligious dialogue.

This controversy seems relatively forgotten by now, because the outrage has since moved elsewhere. For a short time, a rumor emerged that this WYD was a failure because it supposedly had the fewest participant registrations in the history of WYD. This controversy was short-lived, as the facts immediately piled up to contradict it: at peak attendance, WYD Lisbon counted 1.5 million pilgrims, higher than the median attendance for WYD. Currently, the main debate has to do with how the Blessed Sacrament was reserved and distributed during the crowd-packed Masses.

More than anything, this demonstrates a worrying trend from those critical of WYD and the pope. They move from outrage to outrage, without concerning themselves with fact-checking those scandals. So whenever a controversy is refuted, the outrage over it has already died down and another one has taken its place. This leaves no opportunity for a salutary prudence that would think: “If I was wrong then, maybe I should be cautious before joining the bandwagon again.” All that continues to linger are talking points to be hurled at the next opportunity, in a litany of accusations against the pope that grows longer the more time passes.

I have not forgotten the first controversy: Did WYD’s focus on interreligious dialogue detract from evangelization? At the time, I wrote an analysis of the issue, arguing: “There’s no reason why both evangelization and dialogue can’t happen simultaneously at WYD. Again, they are not contradictory. The Church can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.”

Others, however, were skeptical that this would be possible.

At the end of WYD Lisbon—and having been at the epicenter of the whole event as a media-accredited correspondent—I wish to provide my assessment.

Evangelization and interreligious dialogue

Regarding evangelization, it was quite evident that this was a focal point for WYD. My wife and I have written at considerable length about the thoroughly Catholic initiatives that took place before and during WYD.

First, we reported on the Pilgrimage of the Symbols. During the weeks leading up to WYD, two symbols—the Pilgrim Cross and an icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani—were brought in a 40,000-kilometer pilgrimage passing through Angola, Poland, Spain, and then all over Portugal.

Afterward, we investigated the Rise Up Encounters, a new model of catechesis taking place all over Lisbon and other Portuguese cities, in which 250 talks were held daily from August 2 to 4, always with the presence of a bishop. Our experience corroborated the Christocentric character of this catechesis and the spiritual maturity of the answers given by the youth who we interviewed.

We also wrote about the City of Joy, set up in the gardens of a historical part of Lisbon, holding a Chapel, a Reconciliation Park, and a Vocational Fair. The Chapel was always packed with pilgrims for daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration. The Reconciliation Park contained 150 confessionals, where 800 priests heard confessions for hours. The Vocational Fair accommodated 129 booths, hosted by congregations and organizations that helped young people discern a religious vocation or a call for missionary or charitable work.

On August 4, the Holy Father was present at a Via Crucis, where each station of the cross was enriched with the reflections of the youth. It was very moving seeing the pilgrims carrying the Pilgrim Icons through Eduardo VII Park, marching toward the stage along a sea of flags from all over the world.

The next day, the Pope led a Papal Vigil, where he spoke about this WYD’s motto “Mary arose and went in haste,” referencing the biblical episode in which the Virgin Mary hurried to meet Elizabeth after the Annunciation. For me, one of the most moving moments was when 1.5 million pilgrims stood in complete silence during the Eucharistic Adoration taking place during the papal vigil.

Finally, WYD ended with the Papal Mass, once again with 1.5 million participants, coming from all but one country on Earth.

These were the main events of WYD, and these were more prominently featured in the official WYD app that the pilgrims could download to their phones to be informed about the scheduled activities.

Of course, there were also many other profoundly Catholic initiatives that the youth could choose to participate in, like veneration of relics and Eucharistic adoration spread throughout Lisbon’s churches and chapels. The young people were also invited to learn about the lives of WYD’s patron saints. Every day there was a Youth Festival with conferences, concerts, sports matches, museum visits, theater, dance, cinema, exhibitions, and other activities, that were also imbued with the spirit of evangelization.

In this regard, it was impossible to take part in this event and not see it as inherently and undeniably Catholic.

But what then, about interreligious dialogue?

Interreligious dialogue

In addition to evangelization, there were also many interreligious dialogue initiatives, as previously announced by Cardinal-elect Aguiar.

For example, Pope Francis participated in a tree-planting ceremony with representatives of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism on August 2. Two days later, Pope Francis met with 17 other religious leaders to deliver a message of fraternity among religions.

Previous WYDs had already hosted interreligious encounters such as these. As we reported, Benedict XVI held an ecumenical and interreligious meeting in Sydney in 2008. Similar events had also taken place in Panama in 2019.

However, the interreligious dialogue in previous WYDs went mainly unnoticed by the press. Fr. Peter Stilwell, who was asked to organize the interreligious dialogue programs for WYD Lisbon, took that invitation to mean that “this time there was an intention somewhere that the interreligious dimension and Christian unity dimension should be highlighted.”

WYD Lisbon 2023 set up a Working Group for Interreligious Dialogue for the coordination of this interreligious component. As Fr. Stilwell recalls, the WYD app also contained a tab for these interreligious initiatives.

For example, there was a concert “for Peace” (Canto Pela Paz) featuring songs and dances hailing from all kinds of religious traditions, including Catholicism. There were also some visits to non-Christian places of worship, like a mosque, a synagogue, and a Hindu temple.

However, though these programs were touted by some in Catholic media as making interreligious dialogue a central point of WYD, I believe this is an exaggeration. For example, it has been reported that an average of 200 pilgrims per day visited the Central Mosque of Lisbon. For comparison, 10,000-15,000 pilgrims received the sacrament of Reconciliation daily at the City of Joy.

Another example: when asked at a press conference about a program featuring both Catholics and Evangelicals, Rosa Lima, the official WYD spokesperson, declined to comment, since she could not speak for the people who had organized that specific activity. When we asked her to clarify, she explained that one thing was the official WYD program, and another thing was the programs that other organizations put forward during WYD. These initiatives came from grassroots movements which WYD had facilitated, for example, by providing venues and support.

Of course, those activities were also a part of WYD, and we can’t downplay their importance. It is undeniable that as Fr. Stillwell made clear, there was an intention to “highlight” interreligious dialogue during this particular WYD celebration.

That said, the outrage that over it from conservative and traditionalist quarters was certainly overblown.

It is also important to note that this dialogue was not unidirectional. People from other religions also collaborated with the Catholic component of WYD. My wife reported about the testimonials of some WYD volunteers, including a Coptic Orthodox woman from Egypt who stepped up to help during the event. Also, Sheik Munir from the Islamic community proclaimed very passionately that there were Muslim volunteers as well.


I once again recall what I said when WYD was about to begin. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue could both be important components of a WYD, and they both could happen simultaneously. In other words, “the Church can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.”

After experiencing this WYD, I believe I was correct in my initial assessment. Both evangelization and interreligious dialogue were successfully carried out and properly emphasized. Also, interreligious dialogue did not detract in the least from evangelization, which remained central throughout the whole event.

In the meantime, WYD welcomed not just Catholics, but youth from other religions. This helped establish bridges of fraternity among different faiths, according to the principles of Fratelli Tutti, as Cardinal-elect Aguiar was trying to convey in his much-maligned interview.

As I went through WYD in Lisbon, I felt like there were two different versions: 1) the media version of a profoundly secularized and dechristianized WYD, flaunted by Catholic media, and 2) the real version unfolding before my very eyes, thoroughly evangelistic and Christocentric, seeking to be the Catholic leaven of a new society.

In the end, 1.5 million pilgrims were present in a Catholic-organized event, praying and encountering Christ in communion with the Holy Father. An achievement that no outrage should be able to obscure.

I hope that, through our coverage and testimony, we were able to clear fake news and misinterpretations, and also foster a more healthy environment, in which people don’t jump to conclusions or judge based on appearances, lest they end up in a smearing campaign against a most worthy initiative like WYD.

An earlier version of this article was published at “The City and the World.” Click here to subscribe to this Catholic journalism project by Pedro Gabriel and Claire Domingues.


Image credit: © Jesus Huerta \ JMJ 2023, FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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