As I watch young people, group leaders, priests and bishops from across the world arrive in Lisbon, Portugal for the 2023 World Youth Day my heart and mind return to the days in both 1995 and 2005 when I was on the pilgrimage to World Youth Days. In 1995 it was December and we made our way from the UK to the Philippines where we began our pilgrimage on the Island of Cebu. My initial memory of arriving on a small plane was the heat…even though the Filippinos thought it was cool, and the middle of their winter season! After ten days of encounter with young people, seminarians, local women projects and much more we made our way to Manila for the days of catechesis and then into the major celebration beginning with the arrival of Pope John Paul II. The theme in 1995 was “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”. If there was one memory from Cebu it was the poverty and yet the faith and the resilience of the people especially the women, many of whom were at home for long periods of time while the men-folk were away working. I recall gathering with them in local small chapels as the bell rang to call them the people to prayer together each day as Mass was not available in each village daily. In Manila we joined the catechesis sessions led by Bishops, who gave input but who also wanted to listen and learn from us, young people from around the globe. My abiding memory of this World Youth Day is Pope John Paull II inviting us at the closing Mass to stand, hold hands with people around us, some friends…others strangers…and to pray the Our Father in our own mother-tongue – a true expression of the Catholic Church gathered as one in prayer. For me the theme resonated on my return as I was invited to share the experience with parishes…youth groups…schools and even in a prison chaplaincy setting – as the theme said I really felt I had been sent! To share the story and in the words of the theme song for 1995 “to tell the world of his love”.
The pilgrimage to World Youth Day in 2005 was somewhat different – this time I was the group leader as we had decided to take the opportunity to invite two students from each of our schools and colleges in Ireland to come to Cologne. As Ursulines Cologne has a special place in our hearts as it is the city of Saint Ursula. We were privileged to be able to share the story of Ursula…to visit the Basilica of Saint Ursula and to walk the streets named after her. Saint Ursula shares the patronage of the city of Cologne with the Magi whose tomb is in the Cathedral and they are each commemorated in the city crest. The theme for 2005 was “We have come to worship him” taken from the story of the Magi arriving in to Bethlehem to meet the infant Christ. My abiding memory here is slowly and silently making our way into the Cathedral late on the Friday night to sit and pray at the tomb of the Magi – a breath-taking moment to see the Cathedral full of young people all sitting in groups on the floor praying and reflecting in silence – no words needed…no music…no singing…just quiet prayer and reflection together. We truly had “come to worship him”. The closing Mass early on Sunday morning was celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI who called on us to return home just as the magi had done – by a different route, not just a physical change in the path we took but changed from the inside as the Magi had been.
So I join in prayer with all who will gather in Lisbon this year and hope they will take to heart the 2023 theme – Mary arose and went with haste – as they gather in prayer…in song…in reflection and in friendship.