Pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Hartford recently returned home from World Youth Day Lisbon 2023, where they gained a deeper connection to God, a greater affection for Pope Francis and the awesome realization of what it means to be part of the universal Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s just an experience like no other – the feeling of how large faith can be,” said Christopher Serafin, 18, who traveled to Portugal with 16 youths and 6 adults from St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bristol. “We as a people, we’re not alone. People may seem so different, but we all share faith and we can bond through our religion.”
As part of World Youth Day Lisbon 2023, held Aug. 2 to 6, teens and young adults spent time in the presence of the Holy Father Pope Francis and united with other young Catholics from around the globe in catechesis, prayer, the sacraments and fellowship.
Pope Francis presided at various World Youth Day events, including a Welcome Mass, Stations of the Cross, and a Closing Mass that drew 1.5 million attendees.
But the pilgrims felt closest to Pope Francis when he was driven through the streets of Lisbon in his popemobile, as they lined the streets to get a glimpse.
“It was magical. Everybody was cheering and waving back. It was beautiful,” Serafin said.
“It was amazing. It did not feel real,” said Gabriella Drewniak, 16, another pilgrim from St. Stanislaus Parish. “And then everyone was excited and screaming, and that’s when you knew it’s not a dream. It’s real.”
The group from Bristol also took time to visit nearby historic and sacred sites. They attended a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, saw a relic of Blessed Carlo Acutis at the Basilica of the Martyrs and viewed the sick bed of St. Jacinta who recovered from the flu at the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception.
“It was so powerful,” said Debbie Sousa, youth minister from St. Stanislaus Parish. “Now they feel so touched. They’re closer to God. They witnessed so much.”
One highlight, according to Sousa and Serafin, was the more than five-mile trek to La Guarda Field for a Saturday vigil service and an overnight campout before the big Closing Mass on Sunday. To reach the field, the crowds were redirected to walk along a closed highway.
“Pilgrims were walking down the highway for as far as the eye could see. It was just packed with people,” Serafin recalled. “It just shows how many believers in the faith were there from all over the world and how connected we are.”
Those connections were also fostered, Serafin said, when he played soccer with young people from Canada and Australia. Drewniak said she talked to youths from Italy, France, Spain and Poland.
Both Serafin and Drewniak said it was not a vacation but a pilgrimage with hardships, including walking an average of 10 miles a day in the heat, sleeping on the ground and waiting in long lines for food and restrooms.
“It was also spiritually challenging,” Serafin added, referring to the many worship services, spiritual talks and prayer walks. One priest advised the young people to pray all the time – even while walking – by talking to God about their day and asking for his protection. Serafin put that advice into practice. “It forces you down to your core. It’s just you and God, at a certain point.”
By Shelley Wolf