Rising Up at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal

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Maryknoll sends a priest chaplain and young adults to the global gathering

For Juan Alvarez, a pilgrim from Texas who attended World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, it was a blessing to receive the Eucharist every day with Maryknoll Father Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry. “He was our shepherd, leader and our guide in everything we did,” Alvarez said.

Father Ulloa-Chavarry accompanied Alvarez, 34, and more than 100 other pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as chaplain. This delegation — as well as a Maryknoll young adult group — joined a multitude of about 1.5 million Catholics from all over the world.

The theme “Mary arose and went with haste” (Luke 1:39) was chosen by Pope Francis as the motto of World Youth Day 2023. “The Church wants young adults to rise, stand up,” Father Ulloa-Chavarry said.

Father Ulloa-Chavarry, vocation director for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, celebrated an opening Mass for hundreds of pilgrims from the United States on July 30 at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene.

Finding meaning in the saint for whom the church is named, Father Ulloa-Chavarry said, “Mary Magdalene was the first to recognize the risen Jesus. We all receive the Holy Spirit.”

In his homily, Father Ulloa-Chavarry asked pilgrims to discern their own unique calling. “What if God asked you, young man, to reflect on being a priest or a brother? Young lady, can you ponder on being a nun? And if we are afraid of saying ‘yes,’ this is the time to lose the fear,” the missioner said. “I haven’t mentioned marriage, because many of you will marry, but very few will become religious — and we need you. The Church needs your voice.”

Sarahi Unzueta, 28, a Maryknoll mission education promoter, joined the Sisters of Bon Secours to lead a delegation of more than 20 young adults from different states. “Our goal was to empower them, helping their leadership skills and spiritual growth,” she said.

Events at the weeklong World Youth Day gathering included a visit to the Sanctuary of Fatima, a welcome ceremony for Pope Francis, Stations of the Cross, a vigil and the concluding Mass. Pilgrims were also invited to attend morning catechesis sessions called “Rise Up.”

There were ongoing occasions to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, as well as concerts and opportunities to meet other young Catholics from different cultures.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

About 1.5 million young Catholics welcome Pope Francis as he arrives at Tejo Park in Lisbon, Portugal, for the closing Mass of World Youth Day on Aug. 6, 2023. (CNS/Lola Gomez/Portugal)

When the Holy Father arrived at the Welcome Ceremony at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon on Aug. 3, he was greeted by a sea of young people waving their countries’ flags and chanting in Spanish, “Esta es la juventud del papa,” “this is the pope’s youth.”

“I am pleased to see all of you, and also to hear the delightful noise you are making!” the pope told them. “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.”

“To see so many young Catholics is a good sign,” said Stephen Harden, 28, a Maryknoll seminarian who joined the Galveston-Houston delegation.

“I’m happy to see the energy that’s part of the Church,” he said. “Christ is in so many different countries, so the missionary vocation is alive and it’s very much needed.”

The following day, pilgrims gathered for the Stations of the Cross. Holding crosses, they prayed, and many embraced each other during the emotive service. Pope Francis encouraged them to share with Jesus what causes us to cry in our lives.

“Jesus dries our hidden tears with his tenderness. Jesus wishes to relieve our loneliness with his closeness. Jesus wishes to calm our fears, your fears, my fears; he wants to calm those deep fears with his consolation,” the pope said. “He also desires to encourage us to embrace the risk of loving. Today we are going to journey with Jesus along the path of his suffering.”

On Aug. 5, the pilgrims set out for Tejo Park for the vigil and Mass. The arduous walk along the Tejo River — under the fierce summer sun during a heat wave — lasted about eight hours. People were assisted if, overcome by the exertion and intense heat, they fainted.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

Maryknoll seminarian Stephen Harden and Father Ulloa-Chavarry attend the vigil at Tejo Park along with a multitude of other exuberant pilgrims. (Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry/Portugal)

During the walk, pilgrims prayed the rosary.

“Praying the rosary helped me focus, because the pilgrimage was rough,” said Unzueta, who led the Maryknoll group. “I was meditating on how powerful and gracious Mary is. She walked alongside Jesus and had troubles too, yet she empowers us to focus on our goals, commitment and faith.”

Father Ulloa-Chavarry recalled Pope Francis’ words at the vigil: “Mary does something that was not asked of her … Mary goes because she loved, and whoever loves flies, runs and rejoices.”

However, the pope cautioned, Christians’ attitudes must be merciful. The only time to look down on others, he said, is when helping them up.

During the vigil at Tejo Park, pilgrims prayed together in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “What impressed me the most was the magnitude of everyone kneeling before our Lord in the Sacrament,” said Jason Appelgate, a Maryknoll pilgrim from Seattle. They slept under the stars and in the morning attended Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, wrapping up World Youth Day and his visit to Portugal.

“This event allowed the youth to value and esteem their faith through a grassroots approach, walking the pilgrim journey in a land where Our Lady of Fatima chose to appear,” Father Ulloa-Chavarry said. “She continues to gather people around her loving presence.”

Pope Francis announced that the next World Youth Day will take place in Seoul, South Korea.

Carlos Villagomez, 26, a member of the Maryknoll Young Adult Empowerment Community in Seattle, says that on his return he will share the message of Pope Francis. “Jesus loves all of us,” he says.

Villagomez noted that many people — even in his own family — struggle with their faith. “I want to bring them back to Mass and encourage them to serve others.”

Juan Alvarez said this experience will remain with him for a lifetime. “We walked, shared, talked and prayed together with Father Rodrigo,” he said. “World Youth Day doesn’t end here. We all have to continue, like Pope Francis encourages us to do. We have to keep learning and love one another. The Church is very young. We have to spread the Gospel.”

To learn more about WYD 2023 and meet young pilgrims, read the article “World Youth Day 2023: Voices of Pilgrims” by Giovana Soria.

Featured image: Maryknoll Father Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry (bottom row, second from right) joins young pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as a chaplain for World Youth Day. (Courtesy of Stephen Harden/Portugal) 


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About the author

Giovana Soria

Was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Science/Journalism from the University of San Martín de Porres in Lima. As staff writer, she writes and translates articles for Maryknoll magazine and Misioneros, our Spanish-language publication. Her articles have also appeared in the bilingual magazine ¡OYE! for Hispanic Catholic youth. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in Rockland County, New York.