LISBON, August 4, 2023 — Among many other initiatives meant to bring pilgrims into a deeper relationship with Christ, the World Youth Day (WYD) organized the “City of Joy,” promoting vocations and the sacraments.

Set in the gardens sprawling before the Hieronymites Monastery (one of Lisbon’s most famous landmarks), the City of Joy is described as “a place of encounter with Jesus where pilgrims will find different experiences of Christian living and joy.”

“They will be provoked to look at their own lives and discover a path as a response to God who calls each of us by our own name. Passing through the City of Joy means encountering a living God who invites us to experience his forgiveness and mercy and to give our lives generously in response to his designs of Love,” the official WYD website explains.

The City of Joy holds a Chapel, a Reconciliation Park (where the pilgrims can go to confession), and a Vocational Fair.

A sea of confessionals

Park of Reconciliation

Fr. Columba Jordan, an Irish priest from the Franciscan Friars of Renewal, can observe the Chapel and Reconciliation Park from his booth at the Vocational Fair:

“The Adoration Chapel is packed over there. And confessions are busy all day, so that’s a good sign,” he says.

Sr. Aminta, a Venezuelan nun from the congregation Esclavas de Cristo Rey in Madrid, confirms:

“Many young people have a very intense prayer life. The confessionals here are always full, very long queues. I believe the Lord is passing by and things are happening.”

The City and the World corroborates that the Chapel was filled to the brim with a youth group gathered in prayer at the time, even overflowing to the grass nearby.

Temporary-built chapel in the park

Rita Amaral, Head of the City of Joy, explains in a press conference on August 4 that, even outside of daily mass, the Chapel was always full.

There were also 150 confessionals, where approximately 800 priests made the sacrament of Reconciliation available in 50 languages. The confessionals were built by Portuguese prisoners, and 3 of these confessionals will be donated to the prisons where they were created after WYD ends.

Fr. Adrian Aguinaldo is a Filipino priest that took part on the confessions at the Reconciliation Park. He said he has hope in the Church when he sees these young people queueing in such a long line.

“These young people, when they confess their sins, they are finding meaning in their life. They’re setting their direction right when they make mistakes and commit sins. At the center of what they’re looking for is hunger for God, meaning for their lives and increasing of their faith.”

Photo credits: ©️ Alberto Conceição /JMJ Lisboa 2023, Flickr, https://tinyurl.com/yhs5729x, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When asked whether the sacraments play a central role during WYD, Fr. Aguinaldo replies without hesitation: “Of course! During WYD, we celebrate Mass every day. And confession is available every day. And not only the sacraments, but even the catechesis.”

Francisca, a young Portuguese pilgrim who had just left the Reconciliation Park, told The City and the World that she frequents the sacraments assiduously. When questioned about the importance of the sacraments during WYD, Francisca answered:

“It couldn’t be any other way. They play a very important role, because we are all here for the same reason. We are all Christians, Catholics, and being Catholic means, you go to confession. So, if you have the opportunity to go to confession, it’s great.”

Today, Pope Francis was present at the City of Joy, where he heard the confessions of 3 young pilgrims. According to Rita Amaral, 10,000-15,000 pilgrims received the sacrament of Reconciliation daily.

A laboratory of vocations

The Vocational Fair was set just besides the Reconciliation Park, featuring 129 booths where each congregation or organization explained their charism to the passing youth.

The lined-up booths formed “streets” along the garden, which were named after each of the previous WYD.

The “streets” of the vocational fair

José Manuel, a Portuguese Dominican friar, explained: “Our order here in Portugal is very small and with a very aged population. We are taking some steps for the renovation of the order here in Portugal.”

When asked whether WYD was contributing for the renovation of the order in Portugal: “I like to use the parable of the sower. The sower sows the seeds wherever they fall. The same applies to us. We are here at this fair, we sow the seeds, and in due time we will see if they bear fruits or not.”

While Br. José Manuel was giving this interview, another Dominican friar was offering his life testimony in a stage nearby.

The Vocational Fair

In the meantime, the stand of the Esclavas de Cristo Rey had posters, saying “we help you discern,” and “we accompany you,” in bright colors. Sr. Aminta clarified the meaning of these posters:

“We ask some questions to make them think, questions about values and about things that they can offer, and they don’t know what to answer. First, they must discover their personal knowledge, which they must uncover, little by little. We help them with that. We ask them to reflect: ‘What do I have to give? What can I offer to others?’”

Fr. Jordan of the Franciscans of the Renewal used the analogy of marriage, which is always preceded by a period of dating. If there’s dating before marriage, why not a period of self-examination for the religious life, where young people can discern whether they want to spend their life with Jesus in this particular way?

The City and the World confirms that at least 2 young Spanish pilgrims passing by Fr. Jordan’s booth said they were discerning a vocation in religious life.

Fr. William Vizcaíno from the Augustinians affirmed that many young people visiting his stand were curious:

“In this vocational fair I could see many young people were interested in knowing about the religious life. And our purpose in these days is to make the religious life more widely known.”

“We see many young people asking us why we use this white habit,” said Br. José Manuel. “There’s a big curiosity, and this curiosity is the first step towards a vocation.”

Encountering the youth where they are

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary booth

Sr. Kumari Fernando, from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, was born in Sri Lanka and is currently in a mission in England. She explained her presence in WYD:

“We need to reach out to young people where they are today. We need to see the signs of times and reach to young people today.”

Sr. Agostinha, a Portuguese Vincentian nun, shares the same opinion:

“The young people are the future of the world, so we need to be the ones to go to their encounter… We need to help them understand the true happiness that comes from Jesus Christ.”

Despite the widespread secularization in the world, particularly in the West, the congregations present in WYD do not seem pessimistic about the future:

“When people say that the young people don’t follow Christ, right here you see it’s not true,” testifies Jessica, a Chilean missionary from Misioneros Identes. “The young people follow Christ, they want to know about Him, they need Him, they are searching for Him, and it’s very beautiful that this happens and that we can accompany these young people.”

Sr. Kumari Fernando agrees: “The faith is growing stronger and stronger among young people. It’s an expression of their faith, especially yesterday during the opening mass. The ocean of young people flooding into the same place for worship! It was an amazing experience.”

Sr. Tien, a Vietnamese nun also from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, says: “It’s an experience… to see the energy of the Catholic Church, still moving around!” adding immediately afterwards: “It gives life! Not just the young people, but us as well!”

The religious present in the Vocational Fair also believe that the WYD is instrumental in helping this revival become possible: “This [WYD] is a very important event,” explains Fr. Vizcaíno, “that allows many Catholic young people to gather together, so that they can express their faith and how important and joyful it is to follow Jesus.”

Pilgrims visiting the Vocational Fair

Sr. Agostinha confirms: “The WYD are a fantastical event. We must thank Pope Francis, naturally, but also St. John Paul II that started this wonder, naturally inspired by Jesus Christ… I believe this [the WYD] is going to change something. In our youth and in the world.”

Fr. Aguinaldo explains that the youth are learning in WYD to, “like Mary, go in haste. Maybe this is also an invitation of the young people now, to proclaim the faith, to profess the faith, to practice the faith.”

Rita Amaral, Head of the City of Joy, said that 50,000-70,000 people visited the city each day. “These young people will go and spread the joy of Christ through all over the world,” she explains.

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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.

Claire Navarro is a Filipina global IT professional now living in Portugal with her husband, Pedro Gabriel.  She was active in Catholic apologetics and pro-life initiatives back in the Philippines.

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