Going into World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, I had no idea what to expect. Hearing that there were going to be 2 million young Catholics from all over the world in one place for one week sounded amazing, but I could not fathom, nor imagine what that exactly would look like. Unexpectedly, over the course of 10 days in Lisbon, God taught me a lot about His Church.
The overarching theme that I felt pervaded my experience was St. Paul’s notion of the Body of Christ. Sure, we theoretically can understand the idea of there being many parts of the Church, all working together for the good of the whole. However, to actually see the many parts interacting, as different as they all are, was inspiring. While of course people at times unfortunately fell into a “mob mentality” and “self-preservation mode,” especially while being compacted like sardines into small areas, to my surprise however, many young people from every country were quick to support and cheer for one another. There were countless times where the group that Brother Niko and I were chaplain for (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Irvine, CA) were cheered for and embraced by youth of random places like Spain, Sardinia, Finland, Costa Rica, and Canada. “USA! USA! USA!” was the chant we heard as we carried our American Flags throughout Lisbon. Quite common was the exchange of small trinkets and gifts made by the youth, and it was a normal occurrence for someone of one country to give something to another person of another country as a safe-keep and gift of endearment. Despite our cultural and linguistic differences, there seemed to be the common denominator of a good spirit of camaraderie and love amongst all the youth. One day while eating at a Portuguese restaurant, a waiter told me how surprised he was to see so many passionate Catholics from America. From his exposure to social media and movies, it seemed like he had a picture painted in his head of America that was either completely anti-Catholic or just straight hedonistic. While that reality is definitely true in some circumstances, it can be easy to forget the thousands of faithful and practicing Catholics in our country that definitely make an impact in the Church. This man had his mind renewed, and he got emotional when telling us that. I too, was impressed by the welcoming spirit of the Europeans.
Not only that, but I also got a glimpse of the world-wide Capuchin Order. While it was good to reunite with friars from other U.S. Provinces, it was also good to meet for the first time friars from all over the world. Again, while we had obvious differences in language and culture, there seemed to be pervading characteristics amongst all the friars: fraternity, brotherhood, joy, and laughter. Even if none of them wore a habit, there was like a sixth sense that could let you know who they were by how they acted. Despite our individuality, a person could have pointed out a Capuchin from a large group of people. Our Capuchin Charism, or the way the Holy Spirit calls us to live out our lives, goes beyond wearing the habit. It is our identity. Experiencing this on a larger level was like going to a large family reunion or get together. You can be in someone’s house and notice that one crazy uncle, or that interesting looking cousin, but at the end of the day, you feel good because you feel like you’re at home. You connect with these people because you share so much in common. That is how I felt at World Youth Day.
Overall, World Youth Day helped me to feel part of greater entities: the Body of Christ and the Capuchin Order. While our world today is very polarized and quick to separate and demonize others, I feel like this World Youth Day taught us a lesson in unity and being part of something bigger than ourselves. Jesus Christ is such a powerful presence that He overcomes any surface level difference that we may see. At the end of the day, it is Christ who is Head of the Church and of all religious orders, and it is He who can help us all to overcome any differences, no matter how big.