LISBON, PORTUGAL — July 31, 2023

The pilgrimage of the symbols was one of the highlights discussed at the opening press conference for World Youth Day (WYD) today.

In the weeks leading up to each WYD gathering, two symbols are traditionally taken through several parts of the world as representations of WYD. These symbols are the Pilgrim Cross and an icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani.

“The Pilgrimage bore fruits,” said Fr. Filipe Dinis, director of the National Department of Youth Ministry for the Portuguese bishops and the coordinator of the pilgrimage of the symbols. “The symbols touched and let themselves be touched.”

“This pilgrimage didn’t start in Portugal,” Fr. Dinis noted, detailing how the symbols passed through Angola, Poland, and Spain before being brought to WYD’s host nation.

After the symbols arrived in Portugal, they made the rounds through the Portuguese dioceses. “It was a pilgrimage of 40,000 kilometers, almost one whole turn around the world!” Fr. Dinis exclaimed.

Fr. Dinis referred several times to this experience as “unlocking down”: a reference to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions that made the pilgrimage possible, and also to signify a Church going forth to the peripheries, reflecting the call of Pope Francis.

“The youth went out into the streets, ‘unlocking down,’ going outside our churches and going to schools, malls.” Fr. Dinis also mentioned visits to nursing homes and prisons, as well as street processions. “It was very expressive, not only for the young people, but also for children, adults, and elderly… There were very expressive moments of prayer.”

Fr. Dinis explained how the symbols visited even the most remote parts of the country, referring to the depopulation of Portugal’s inland areas, where many young people have emigrated to other countries.

“Some priests were anxious about the pilgrimage,” Fr. Dinis recalled, “but when they saw the reception among the young people, their lack of trust vanished.” The coordinator of the pilgrimage asserted confidently: “Trust! This WYD is happening!”

After the press conference, Fr. Dinis spoke with Where Peter Is, where he was asked about how this pilgrimage helped bring Christ to places where He might not seem present at first glance. Fr. Dinis highlighted the visits to nursing homes, remarking, “When we look to old age we are not only looking to the end of the earthly life, but also to the departure to eternity. And the Cross was a touch of eternity for many of these elderly people.”

Fr. Dinis described how the pilgrimage of the symbols helped reconnect the generations. “If you remember, during lockdown, many people stopped visiting the elderly,” saying that the pilgrimage meant that “some young people — with due precautions — had this opportunity.” In light of the fact that most of the Portuguese elderly population is strongly Catholic, Fr. Dinis explained how this encounter was spiritually beneficial for the youth, saying, “As we reopened, many discovered, not only the respect for the elderly, but how to look at the elderly to find an experience of life. And the cross was a symbol of life, much life.”

To a question about how the Pilgrimage of the Symbols served as a response to the trend towards religious indifferentism and secularization in Portugal, Fr. Dinis replied, referring to the etymology of the word symbol, that “a symbol is that which unites. For many who are indifferent, or even in unbelief, it was an opportunity to understand why. ‘Why this manifestation, what is the meaning of this manifestation?’ For many it was to relive. To look to the past and ask ‘Why are these crowds in the street? It reminds me of the processions in my hometown!’”

“For me, it was a grace,” Fr. Dinis concluded. “I think that for those who may be more indifferent, the cross woke them up to this meaning, and to some it may have helped them relive and return to this dimension of the faith.”

Photo credit: COD Lisboa, Flickr, CC 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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