World Youth Day 2023 – Universal Church inspires Diocesan teens

We are all part of one Universal and one Local Church – that is the Mother Church that spans the globe and the Diocese in which you reside. This was a profound lesson learned by the Diocese of Venice pilgrims as they took part in an epic journey to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.

From July 29 to Aug. 8, 2023, Bishop Frank J. Dewane was joined by 52 Diocesan pilgrims who were able to take in the culture of this European country while also seeing the Lord in many things great and small.

Highlights for the young pilgrims included being among people from all corners of the world, Mass with Pope Francis and, most importantly, truly feeling God’s presence in all they were doing, seeing and hearing.

Bishop Dewane met with the group at their hotel each morning and saw a change in them as the week progressed. At a dinner following the Mass that closed World Youth Day 2023, the Bishop realized that the young men and women had grasped the sacredness of the moment and had a new realization of the idea of the Universal and Local Church (Diocese).

“It was wonderful to see how excited everyone was,” Bishop Dewane said. “The young people shared how they felt, which can be difficult. However, this showed how immersed they were in the experience of this holy journey and being among friends who they could trust.”

The young people heard the message of Pope Francis who said they are an important part of society and their gifts from the Lord are not to be used later, but now.

Videos of the brief encounter with Pope Francis showed the pure joy of the moment for the youth. For example, Antonio LaPorta, of St. Agnes Parish in Naples, said it was a surreal and awesome experience seeing the Holy Father. “You see him on TV and you don’t think he is a real person. Then you see him in real life, and everyone is cheering and jumping because the Pope is there… I loved the joy and praise he gets.”

Luke Dalton of Epiphany Cathedral in Venice was similarly impressed by the Holy Father. “It was cool being that close to the earthly leader of the Church. I got a video and was pretty close.”

Tatiana Lopez, of Our Lady of the Angels in Lakewood Ranch, said seeing and hearing the message of Pope Francis and being part of the whole World Youth Day pilgrimage was a “very unique experience. We got involved with all the different countries and getting to know the different people. Being here with my mom (Krista Lopez) was special. Then we heard Pope Francis at the (closing) Mass. Hearing him speak and seeing him in person was incredible.”

In addition to Epiphany Cathedral, St. Agnes, Our Lady of the Angels, the Diocesan group represented nine parishes including: Jesus the Worker in Fort Myers, St. Martha in Sarasota, Ave Maria Parish in Ave Maria, Our Lady Queen of Heaven in LaBelle, Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda, and St. Joseph in Bradenton. Leading them throughout the week was Marthamaria Morales, the Diocesan Director for Youth and Young Adult Ministry. The group also included several priests, seminarians and other adults.

Morales said the entire journey brought the Diocesan group closer together as they shared incredible spiritual experiences from Mass, to prayer, to Eucharistic Adoration, to listening to amazing speakers and musicians and finally the closing Vigil and Mass with Pope Francis.

First, they were united by a long flight, and a shared adventure as they visited key religious sites in Coimbra, Fatima, Santarem before arriving in Lisbon. The group participated in the Opening Ceremony and Mass in Colina de Econtro (Parque Eduardo VII), and took part in a daily “Rise Up” catechesis.

During the catechesis, which took place Aug. 2-4, the youth learned about how they are loved by the Lord and because of this they were challenged to put Jesus first in their lives above outside distractions.

Speakers at the English-language catechesis included Bishop Robert Barron, of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Christopher West, who spoke on the Theology of the Body. Morales was one of the presenters for the Spanish-language catechesis.

Each afternoon of WYD, a Youth Festival took place throughout the city. In Cidade da Alegria, there was a Vocational Fair and Reconciliation Park. During the Vocational Fair, young pilgrims encounter various movements, associations, communities, religious orders, and projects of social nature. The Reconciliation Park is where pilgrims encountered the Merciful Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The group was present at the welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis on Aug. 2, and for the Stations of the Cross on Aug. 3. In their “down time” the pilgrims were able to explore the historic city and waterfront while also meeting and exchanging small gifts and tokens with pilgrims from across the globe.

Daisy Trejo, of Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish in LaBelle, started the pilgrimage as a generally “shy” person, but throughout the journey she opened up, getting signatures on her Diocesan T-shirts from people from around the world.

Meanwhile, Jesus Ismael Hernandez of Jesus the Worker Parish in Fort Myers, traded bracelets with dozens of others.

A special moment occurred when Father Krzysztof “Chris” Piotrowski, Parochial Vicar at Epiphany Cathedral, crossed paths with the Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the First Lady of Poland. Father is a native of Poland and the two spoke briefly and posed for photos.

The World Youth Day Vigil was Aug. 5 at “Campo de Grace” (Parque Tejo). This was an evening and overnight celebration for the pilgrims which included speakers, musicians, adoration and much more. Diocesan priests celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the pilgrims in the field before the celebration began. The pilgrims then spent the night on air mattresses and in sleeping bags ahead of the Closing Mass with the Holy Father the following morning.

Bishop Dewane and the Diocesan priests concelebrated the Closing Mass. Pope Francis’ message to the youth was to shine, to listen, and to be unafraid.

“To all of you, dear young people, who are the present and the future, yes to all of you, Jesus now says: ‘Have no fear,’ ‘Do not be afraid!’ Pope Francis said.

“Now, in a brief moment of silence, (I ask) each of you repeat these words, in your own heart: ‘Do not be afraid!’

“Dear young people, I would like to look into the eyes of each of you and say: Do not be afraid. I will tell you something else, also very beautiful: it is no longer I, but Jesus Himself who is now looking at you. He knows each of your hearts, each of your lives; He knows your joys, your sorrows, your successes and failures. He knows your heart. Today, He says to you, here in Lisbon, at this World Youth Day: ‘Have no fear, take heart, do not be afraid!’”

Donna Kuo, of Our Lady of the Angels and mother of two of the Diocesan WYD pilgrims (Bryce and Lindsay), was one of several parents who travelled with their children. Kuo explained how it was such an honor to be a part of the Diocesan pilgrimage.

“We are walking away changed for life. With memories for life. What I will treasure the most is the time to reflect and pray with my children and grow in our faith together” Kuo said.

Following the closing Mass, Bishop Dewane and pilgrims went out for a final meal in Lisbon as a group. The next day, they travelled to Porto, Portugal (where they arrived and departed from) and had a tour of the city.

There, Bishop Dewane celebrated Mass for the group for the final time at the Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto in Portuguese), which is the most important religious edifice in the city and dates from 1110.

Perhaps Christian DiGioia of Epiphany Cathedral said it best about his experience: “It feels great to be part of a giant Catholic community. People from everywhere united by God.”

The pilgrims returned to the U.S. on Aug. 8, ready to live out what they learned. As they reflect upon their journey, they can start to make plans for World Youth Day 2027 in Seoul, South Korea.