The next edition of World Youth Day (WYD) is almost upon us! Around 1.5 million youths are expected to descend on Lisbon during the first week of August.
This may not be the biggest gathering of young people ever (that record will probably remain in Manila for quite some time!), but it is by far the greatest gathering of any sort in Portugal, a small European country on the westernmost coast of continental Europe.
I live in Lisbon and, although I am not personally involved in the organization of WYD, I am in very close contact with many people who are. What I can say is that the range of feelings about this upcoming event varies widely.
On one hand, as a priest who is deeply involved recently told me, there is some discontent among the vast team that is preparing WYD. As the date draws closer, many cannot see past the various logistical and practical difficulties that such a massive occasion necessarily entails.
This is partly due to another factor: lack of engagement from the general population. There is still a shortage of volunteers to help out during the five days of WYD, including host families. For example, the organizers had hoped to be able to host close to 100 thousand people in family houses. However, they only have enough volunteer families for around 20 thousand. The number will surely increase as many people wait until the last minute to sign up, but there are a lot of people who are scared by the sheer enormity of the number of expected pilgrims and are making sure to be far away from Lisbon during those days.
This is a real shame and no doubt they will be missing out on a great experience. My family, for example, is never in Lisbon in August, as we are fortunate to be able to move into a house closer to the beach to escape the oppressive heat. Yet this year, we made a point of changing our plans. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, what a shame to want to pass it by!
Weighed down by this lack of enthusiasm on the part of many, those who have volunteered can find it difficult to feel anything but discouragement. Will things be ready on time? Will there be places for all the pilgrims to stay? Will transport systems work? Will the money generated by the pilgrims cover the costs, or will this be a financial black hole?
However, if none of the organizers themselves can say they have ever dealt with such an enormous event, the same is not true of the Vatican experts who have been following preparations closely, and their assessment is completely different! My sources tell me that Rome is very impressed with how well-organized and efficient everything is. For example, in the latest edition of WYD, held in Panama, two months before it started the organizing committee didn’t know yet if they would even be allowed to use the ground where they hoped to stage the final mass. In Portugal, on the contrary, largely due to the invaluable cooperation of the government and city councils, the ground, stage/altar, and infrastructure are almost ready a month and a half before the first arrivals.
This enthusiasm on the part of Rome is, of course, an excellent sign, and gives us every indication that things will work out for the best, regardless of the inevitable hiccups that will occur.
State cooperation has also been important in securing more space for pilgrims to sleep during WYD. Sports halls, had already been attributed to the organisation, and faced with the lack of host families the Ministry of Education has ordered all public schools in Lisbon and surrounding cities to put themselves at the disposal of the event. The Government has also announced a one-year pardon for all sentences for convicts between the ages of 16 and 30, as well as an amnesty for all those in the same age group who have been sentenced to pay fines up to 1000 euros. The prison sentence reduction does not apply to those who committed particularly violent or serious crimes.
Another important factor that has been weighing on the organizers, and on a whole society that looks forward to WYD with expectation and trepidation, is the health of the Holy Father himself. As a journalist specializing in religion, I have been called on to comment on the possibility of Pope Francis not being able to come to Lisbon, should his health decline.
There are many factors to take into account here, but the first is to be clear that, even though there has never been a WYD without the Pope, the fact remains that we are not talking about a music festival in which the Pope is the main star. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ, our universal shepherd, and as such of course everybody–beginning with himself–wants him to be present.
But the over one million youths who are coming to Portugal are not coming just to see the Pope, they have every opportunity to do that more comfortably in Rome! They are coming to gather in the name of Jesus with like-minded peers from the four corners of the earth. It is the youth themselves who make this occasion special. If the Pope is there to confirm them in the faith and to celebrate with them, surely their joy will be complete, but if by some chance he is not, then they will celebrate nonetheless.
Pope Francis has always said that in as far as is humanly possible, the Pope will be present in Lisbon, even if it is no longer him. At this point, there is no reason to believe that it will be anybody else. Yes, the Pope was subjected to recent surgery, and as an 86-year-old man with frail health, anything can happen between the time of writing this article and the beginning of WYD itself, but there is no reason to believe that anything will, and as I type these words a notification has just come in, informing that he will be released from the hospital where he has been recovering from his hernia operation tomorrow.
In fact, it is actually quite possible that the decision to undergo this operation when it happened was taken precisely to allow him time to recover and make the trip in the utmost comfort, as the condition he was suffering from was rather painful.
It did not go unnoticed among the organizers of WYD that the official schedule for the Pope’s visit to Lisbon–which will be longer than previously expected–was released on the very same day that he went to the hospital to do what we were then told were routine tests. We now know that the decision to operate was taken on that same day, so if there was any inkling that the whole situation was more serious than we are being told, they would probably have postponed the release of his travel schedule.
WYD WILL GO WELL
All things considered, there is every reason to believe that WYD will go well. The pilgrims who cannot be hosted by families will not be left out in the streets. Schools and other such buildings are already being prepared to host them; infrastructure will be up and running; health and security services which have been trying to leverage the situation to obtain some benefits, threatening to strike if they are not heeded, will surely not let us down; the Portuguese natural trait for dealing with difficult situations under pressure will be sufficient to override any organizational setbacks that always occur in these sort of events and, God willing, Pope Francis himself will be here to be close to his sheep, who are coming from all over the world.
And when it all blows over, and the city goes back to its sleepy old Summery self, hopefully some of the energy and joy that those million-plus pilgrims bring with them will have rubbed off.
Centuries ago, it was young brave men from Portugal who set out on dangerous voyages over the sea, to carry the Gospel to the remotest parts of Africa, Asia and America. Now the World is coming back to return the favour. May those seeds bear fruit, and may their fruit be plentiful!