On August 3, 2023, Pope Francis delivered his first official World Youth Day speech in Lisbon, Portugal, where 500,000 young people gathered. Initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985, "Catholic Woodstock," as it has been nicknamed, is celebrated at the diocesan level annually—in most places on Christ the King Sunday—and at the international level every two to three years at different locations.
World Youth Day—actually six days of events—celebrates the unity and presence of numerous different cultures. Flags and other national declarations are displayed among mainly young people and include chants and singing of national songs involving a Catholic theme. This year, more than 190 nations were represented at the event’s welcome ceremony.
In his message, Pope Francis told those in the crowd that their presence was no accident and that God has called each one by name.
“Dear friends, there is a happiness that Jesus has prepared for you, for each of you: It does not come from accumulating things but from putting your life on the line. The Lord says also to each of you: ‘Go, for there is a world that needs what you, and you alone, can give it. We have been called because we are loved.”
He added, “In God’s eyes, we are precious children, and he calls us each day in order to embrace and encourage us, to make of us a unique and original masterpiece whose beauty we can only begin to glimpse. On this World Youth Day, let us help one another to recognize this reality; may these days be vibrant echoes of that loving call of God, because we are precious in God’s eyes, despite what our eyes sometimes see, despite what our eyes are sometimes clouded by negativity and dazzled by so many distractions.”
Unlike social media algorithms that associate a name with likes and preferences, God truly knows each person’s uniqueness, the pope told the young people, adding: “God’s heart beats uniquely for you.”
Pope Francis received an enthusiastic welcome as he arrived in the popemobile to shouts of “Papa Francisco” from Portuguese and Spanish-speaking pilgrims.
During the nearly two-hour ceremony in which singers and dancers performed on a large elevated stage, the 86-year-old pope spoke with enthusiasm and frequently added comments not included in his prepared remarks.
Before the flag ceremony, young people in colorful outfits performed a skit reading letters to Pope Francis in different languages describing what it is like to be a Catholic in their countries.
The World Youth Day cross and the pilgrim icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani were also carried in procession in the park.
“In the Church, there is room for everyone. In the Church no one is superfluous, no one is left over, there is room for everyone, just as we are,” he said. “The Lord does not point his finger but opens his arms, embraces us all, as we see with Jesus on the cross who opened his arms so wide to be crucified and die for us. Jesus never closes the door, never, but invites you to enter; Jesus receives, Jesus welcomes.”
Pope Francis told the crowd that “we as the Church are the community of those who are called; we are not the community of the best, no, we are all sinners, but we are called as we are…with the problems we have, with the limitations we have, with our overflowing joy, with our desire to be better, with our desire to succeed. We are called as we are. Think about this. Jesus calls me as I am, not as I would like to be. We are a community of brothers and sisters of Jesus, sons and daughters of the same Father.”
On August 6, Pope Francis closed the international festival of Catholic youth with a huge outdoor Mass and his own "I have a dream" speech, saying he longed for world peace, especially for Ukraine. About 1.5 million people attended his closing Mass at a riverside park in the Portuguese capital.
The pope said the next World Youth Day would be held in Seoul, South Korea, in 2027.
The pope’s message resonates with Merion Mercy’s commitment to the Catholic faith in our Mercy tradition. At MMA, we know that a young woman’s relationship with God will guide her life choices and be a source of steady strength and wisdom throughout her life. Our approach works to ensure that each student knows that she is made in the image and likeness of her God who loves her unconditionally. A Merion girl will know herself, believe in herself, and trust her instincts, and will encounter others warmly with a sense of welcome hospitality, eager to learn their stories and open to sharing her own.
(Credit for summary of Pope Francis' speech: Catholic World Report)