By: Kevin Braski

World Youth Day is probably one of the most important pilgrimages you can possibly go on.

World Youth Day began in Rome under the leadership of St. John Paul II in 1984 and has continued every two to four years to this very day. I was very blessed to have been able to attend as a seminarian and chaperone for the Diocese of Savannah this past August in Lisbon, Portugal with around 1.5 million other pilgrims from around the world. We happy few from Savannah arrived a week before the official start of the event and were blessed to visit the holy sites in Lourdes, Burgos, Santiago Compostela, Fatima, and then Lisbon.

As all pilgrimages, World Youth Day in Lisbon and the traveling that it entailed were both challenging and powerful. Not only were we in foreign countries, which made it difficult to communicate, we regularly were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people that seemed to aimlessly flow through the streets as they, like us, wandered around trying to figure out how to get to their next stop. These massive crowds that caused many of our frustrations were also some of the greatest instruments of God’s grace.

Yes, I got yelled at by some random French priest for trying to get a better spot in front of his group to see the Pope, and yes I watched an Australian priest yell at random pilgrims who were trying to stampede through his group of hundreds of exhausted Australians, but I also saw the Lord use these same priests and people to love others and bring Christ to others. It was also lot of fun carrying a UGA flag to help our group find each other more easily should we get lost. We received many funny looks and questions about the flag as to what it represented. It was also fun bumping into some random UGA alumni and fans as well as some of our rivals overseas. We were gator chomped, Seminole chopped, “Roll Tided,” and jovially heckled by other Americans throughout our time. It was simply part of a fun part of our group’s pilgrimage that we were really only able to share with our fellow Americans.

Overall though, pilgrimages and gatherings of this magnitude showcase humanity, which is not always great but can be as well; Chaucer talks about this reality in his Canterbury Tales. Exhaustion, heat, claustrophobia, and overwhelmed Portuguese infrastructure, volunteers, and cops were all there, but so were 1.5 million pilgrims, predominantly between the ages of 16-35, who were dying to see an 85 year old man in a white robe sitting in a wheelchair.

To the outside world, it seemed nonsensical but not to us because we all knew deep down that we needed to see the Pope and hear his message of faith, hope, and charity that is so badly needed for this world and for the youth of the world, which can only fully come from Christ and his Church. He challenged us to be Catholics by serving others and living out our faith more fully. A few memorable lines were his call to be welcoming to all by genuinely walking with people.

He clarified that this does not mean that we should jettison the rules of the Church but that we are only allowed to look down at others if it also entails a simultaneous action of us extending our hand to pull them up closer to Jesus. We cannot complain about others; we must serve others. We must break down our own insecurities to help evangelize and bring the love of Jesus to the world. We cannot be complacent, but we must rise and make haste as the Blessed Virgin did after the Annunciation–we must say yes to God and move in accord with His will so as to be the hands and feet of Christ. Following the Pope’s message entails having courage, which he no doubt knew was necessary while he exhorted us in his homily during the closing Mass by saying the familiar words, “Do not be afraid!”

This phrase hearkens back to Christ of course, but it also hearkens back to Pope St. John Paul II who courageously stood for the Church during Nazi and Soviet occupation in his homeland and beyond. This phrase reminds me of a recording of JPII when he said, “Do not be afraid! Do not be satisfied with mediocrity! Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch!” Although he did not quote JPII directly, this is the thrust of Pope Francis’ message. Do not just say you’re Catholic; go and be Catholic! Go learn how to pray, learn your faith, go evangelize, and go serve others.

This message has been reiterated by so many others within the Church like Bishop Barron, our local priests, and many other solid Catholic voices, but it simply means more when it comes from the mouth of the Vicar of Christ. Another beautiful thing about this event is reading about how the secular world reacted to World Youth Day. According to one Catholic article, many people were shocked at just how normal the young Catholics were. They did not understand how someone could be on a pilgrimage to see the Pope and also look like a normal college student having a beer or cappuccino at a Lisbon cafe. One Spanish girl responded to one reporter by pointing out that “the Catholic faith is only full of a bunch of imperfect people striving to follow ideals set by a perfect God, which is going to entail failure but will also entail mercy and getting back up.” She pointed out that this does not prevent someone from enjoying the good things in life, which is what so many people misunderstand. Hopefully this message stuck with the reporter and many of the bewildered Portuguese onlookers trying to figure out why so many people from over 200 hundred countries were there to see the Pope and participate in Stations of the Cross, Adoration, and Mass with him.

One of the top spiritual aspects, was to see such a large gathering of people happen with such great joy and peace. It was truly astounding. It was mind blowing. As mentioned earlier, problems arose here and there, which is expected from a world and a Church full of hypocritical sinners, but by and large, it was overwhelmingly positive. As we hiked 6 miles across what seemed like Lisbon’s equivalent of Spaghetti Junction in temperatures around 101 Fahrenheit, as well as during many of our other walks, we regularly were able to talk and sing with others from many nations. We also became much more thankful for the simple things like a good pair of shoes and water. I cannot thank the kind Portuguese citizens who stood at their apartment windows for God knows how long dumping buckets of water from their windows on us to keep us cool. The joy of this event brought us in touch with our weaknesses and strengths.

It exposed us to the beauty of different cultures with their language, food, songs, and more. The universality of the Church was very present at this event, but most importantly it was an event to show us Jesus Christ. It was an event that showed the world how much we continue to desire the way, the truth and the life that Christ says he is. Yes it was an incredible experience to see Lisbon, the Pope, and so many other people, but it was so powerful seeing everyone silently kneel, stand, and sit for Adoration and Mass just like we all do at our home parishes and chapels. It was reinvigorating, and I pray that the Catholic Center plans on going to the Jubilee Youth Event in Rome in 2025 as well as the next World Youth Day in Seoul, South Korea in 2027 so that more Catholic Dawgs can experience the love of Christ and bring that love back with them to a city that we love but also know so greatly needs it, Athens.