World Youth Day 2023

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

This week, World Youth Day was held in Portugal, bringing nearly one million pilgrims from around the world to Lisbon to celebrate and grow in their faith.  

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that 60 U.S. bishops, along with more than 28,600 people from the United States, took part in World Youth Day.

World Youth Day began in 1984 with Saint Pope John Paul II. That year, the Holy Father organized a gathering in Rome on Palm Sunday to mark the Youth Jubilee of the Holy Year of Redemption. While just 60,000 were anticipated to attend, more than 250,000 pilgrims from all over the world came to participate. 

Moved by the experience, John Paul II hosted another celebration in 1985, which welcomed 300,000 young pilgrims to Rome for prayer, catechesis, and a large gathering in Saint Peter’s Square.

Later that year, on December 20, 1985, Pope John Paul II announced the institution of World Youth Day. 

In describing the purpose of creating World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II said in an address to the College of Cardinals and the Roman Curia, “All young people must feel accompanied by the Church: that is why the whole Church, in union with the Successor of Peter, feels more committed, at a worldwide level, to the youth of today, their concerns and requests, their openness and hopes, to respond to their aspirations, passing on the certainty that is Christ, the Truth that is Christ, the love that is Christ.”

Since its institution nearly four decades ago, countries including Italy, Argentina, Spain, Poland, United States, the Philippines, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and Panama have hosted World Youth Day. The impact of these gatherings throughout the years is abundantly evident. 

Speaking to the National Catholic Register, past participants of World Youth Days recounted their own life-changing experiences. 

Catholic Voices’ CEO Brenden Thompson recalled his first World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia in 2008, which he reluctantly attended at the behest of his mother. “I expected little,” he said, “and got something unexpected and life-changing: the gift of faith.”

Father Bjorn Lundberg, a priest serving in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, recalled becoming “aware that we were being called by God” while on a bus from Seattle to Denver for the 1993 World Youth Day.  “John Paul II wanted us to witness to the truth about life and faith. It made a deep impression on me, as I was about to start college.” 

In Lisbon, as pilgrims from more than 190 countries gathered to grow in faith and fraternity, Pope Francis offered young people an inspiring message of hope and love.

Speaking to a crowd of 500,000 young pilgrims during his first official World Youth Day event on  August 3, Pope Francis said, “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.”

In a world that reduces each of us to social media and algorithms, the Holy Father said, “God’s heart beats uniquely for you.”

On Friday, August 4, Pope Francis celebrated the sacrament of Reconciliation with young people and enjoyed lunch with young pilgrims. That evening the Holy Father joined young Catholics in prayer during the Way of the Cross, which took place on the Hill of Encounter at Eduardo VII Park.

Pope Francis traveled to Fatima on Saturday where he prayed the Holy Rosary with young people afflicted with illness at the Chapel of Apparitions of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. The Holy Father later returned to Lisbon for an evening vigil and Eucharistic Adoration.

The international celebration concluded on Sunday with Pope Francis presiding over a Holy Mass for World Youth Day.

Let us offer our prayers, encouragement, and support for those who participated in World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal who have committed to a lifelong journey with Jesus Christ.