In August 2023, Lisbon will host World Youth Day (WYD), a meeting of young people from all over the world with the Pope, which is both a pilgrimage, a youth festival, an expression of the universal Church and a strong instrument of evangelization.
Some call it the most beautiful invention of John Paul II. In 1984, the Pope wanted to organize a meeting on Palm Sunday in Rome, to celebrate the jubilee of young people in the Holy Year of Redemption 1983-1984: 60,000 pilgrims were expected, but at the end 250,000 showed up from many countries.
The experience was so significant for the whole Church that the Holy Father decided to repeat it the following year. In this second meeting, 300,000 young people participated in the moments of prayer and catechesis organized in various churches in the city, and then gathered in St. Peter’s Square to participate in the celebration with the Pope. In view of the success of the initiative, still in 1985 John Paul II announced, on December 20, the establishment of World Youth Day (WYD). From then on – every two or three years – world youth days took place outside the Vatican.
The first international edition of WYD took place in 1987, in the city of Buenos Aires (Argentina), where 900,000 young people gathered. Since then, it was held in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Czestochowa (Poland), Denver (USA), Manila (Philippines), Paris (France), Toronto (Canada), Cologne (Germany), Sydney (Australia), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Krakow (Poland) and Panama City (Panama).
“Mary rose and left in a hurry” (Lk 1:39) is the biblical quotation chosen by Pope Francis as the theme of the 28th World Youth Day, to be held in Lisbon in 2023. This phrase from the Gospel of St. Luke begins the account of the Visitation (Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth), a biblical episode that follows the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God, and which was the theme of the last international WYD in Panama City).
In his conversation with Mary – in the Annunciation –, the angel also tells her that her cousin, of advanced age and considered sterile, was pregnant. It is then that Mary, after saying to the angel, “Behold, the handwork of the Lord, be made in me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), sets out on her way to Ain Karim, the village near Jerusalem where Elizabeth lived, and where she was waiting for the birth of John, who would become St. John the Baptist. Mary of Nazareth is the great figure of the Christian journey, who teaches us to say yes to God. She has been the protagonist of the last edition of WYD, and will continue to be so in Lisbon, this time to inspire young people as a model of charity and mission, so that they too can be active evangelizers.
World Youth Day has two symbols that accompany and represent it: the Pilgrim Cross and the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani. In the months leading up to each WYD, the symbols go on pilgrimage to be heralds of the Gospel and to accompany those youngsters, in particular, in the realities in which they live.
With an height of 3.8 meters, the Pilgrim Cross, built for the Holy Year in 1983, was entrusted by John Paul II to the youngsters on Palm Sunday of the following year, so that it could travel world. Since then, this cross – made of wood – begun a pilgrimage that has taken it to the five continents and almost 90 countries, where it has been seen as a true sign of faith.
Since 2000, the Pilgrim Cross has been accompanied by the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani, who portrays the Virgin Mary with the Child in her arms. This icon was also introduced by Pope John Paul II as a symbol of Mary’s presence amongst young people.
With an height of 1.2 meters and a width of 80 centimetres, the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani is associated with one of the most popular Marian devotions in Italy. The tradition of taking her in procession through the streets of Rome is ancient, to ward off dangers and misfortunes or to put an end to plagues. The original icon can be found in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, and is regularly visited by Pope Francis, who prays in there and leaves a bouquet of flowers before and after each apostolic journey.
The delivery to the young Portuguese of the Pilgrim Cross and the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani took place on November 22, 2020, Solemnity of Christ the King. The symbols were welcomed in Portugal by the Local Organizing Committee and by representatives of the national dioceses, at a celebration held on January 27, at the Lisbon Cathedral. This is a symbolic date for Portugal, since it was precisely two years earlier, on January 27, 2019, that Pope Francis announced that Lisbon would be the next city to organize this great meeting of young people.
Due to the pandemic of covid-19, the symbols currently remain in the Cathedral and, as soon as possible, will begin a pilgrimage through the PALOP, Portuguese communities, Spain and national dioceses.
The Cathedral of Lisbon – as the seat of the Patriarch – is assumed as a central place in the reception of WYD, and will be one of the “main stages” of this great meeting. Currently, it is the “guardian” of the symbols of WYD, the Pilgrim Cross and the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani, and will welcome, over the next months of preparation and during the Day itself, various moments of prayer, vigils, masses and other religious and cultural events to be publicized in due time.