Elizabeth Axisa and Clifton Grech are two youths who, amongst thousands of others, attended this years’ World Youth Day. In returning back to Malta after 7 long (somewhat sleepless) but grace-filled days, they narrate their experience to us, exploring the ‘nature’ of World Youth Day, why it’s relevant to all persons (and not only relevant to believers), and why this experience is one that bears fruit that can really last!
In a few words, how would you describe the nature and purpose of World Youth Day – particularly to those persons who are not familiar with it.
Elizabeth: World Youth Day is a Catholic festival for youths from all over the globe; they gather to celebrate and positively influence each other (including those who do not consider themselves to be part of/active in) the faith. This happens formally through masses events namely, conferences, religious and encounter opportunities such as mass/prayer/benediction, exhibitions, sports, music, and art. In addition, the myriad of conversations and living in a micro community for a week with pilgrims far from and close to home also contributes to this evangelical experience.
Clifton: A year earlier I visited Fatima and there I had my first taste of the universal Church joined in prayer. Everyday people from all over the world would gather in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima to say the rosary which was being said in different languages. Different languages but joined in one prayer and in one faith; it was beautiful. I loved how in the name of Jesus, people from different nations were drawn to the same place. This increased my belief that, despite what’s going on in the world, I was not alone in my faith. When I got wind of the World Youth Day happening in Lisbon, I immediately became drawn to the idea of going. I imagined it would be an experience which was similar to what I had experienced a year earlier.
In the name of Jesus, the World Youth Day drew 1.5 million Catholics, mostly youths, from all the nations. In Lisbon, together we shared our faith, our love for the Jesus and His Church and grew in hope of all that He has promised. And the Lord promises that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) and His presence could be felt throughout the World Youth Day. In the times of prayer, in the friendships, in the lively Christian concerts, in the hours of walking, in the uncomfortable sleeping; I could feel the peace of His presence.
Outline some moments that touched you during your experience and which you think help shed light upon the unique nature of the Christian Faith.
Elizabeth: Many pilgrims experience unique spiritual and social experiences such as Taize prayers, praying with relics, attending mass, the way of the cross and prayers with the masses of international youths. Taize prayers with the Gregorian fathers for example takes on a celestial dimension when combined with genuine prayer. We have all listened to a well-rehearsed choir who pull out all the musical stops for their audience; Taize hymns however, are simple and repetitive and yet they create the space to dialogue with the one who loves us the most – as a loving, caring Father who is omnipresent and ever close to us. Relics were also on display and personal prayer time is encouraged; this time there were plenty to choose from but that of St Therese of Lisieux proved to be popular. Championing her ‘Little way’, pilgrims were able to relate to her littleness as they too are young and full of anxieties. Despite this, just like Therese, they can pray and live their faith boldly reassured by her words;
‘God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint’ (Birri, C., n.d.).
Clifton: On the first day of the World Youth Day celebrations, youths were invited to join for the Opening Ceremony. I immediately felt that this was no usual celebration. On the way to the stage, loads of youths from every nation were walking in groups, waving their country’s flag, singing worship songs in their language and being merry. This moment ignited my heart with hope and joy and I felt prompted to praise God for His faithfulness to His Church. In this moment I also felt assured, that notwithstanding the huge number of people that gathered for the World Youth Day, God cared for me in a personal manner, knew me by name and He has claimed me as His own. It was no coincidence that I was there. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
The Evening Vigil was another awe-inspiring moment. Following moments of prayer, we were invited to a few minutes of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As soon as the priest came out with the Blessed Sacrament, the 1.5million people gathered, fell into silence, and started falling to their knees in adoration and in prayer. As I fell on my knees, I could not help but be lifted in a spirit of praise to our awesome God. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)
Can World Youth Day be a space that (challenges) and perhaps also aids those who do not see themselves as belonging to the Christian Faith/or to any faith at all? If so, how?
Elizabeth: Aside from personal renew of catholic beliefs, world youth day is a prime opportunity for dialogue between believers and non-believers. Pilgrims fill the streets with their songs, flags and everyone was proud to wear the pilgrim kit (especially the bucket hat!). Locals can’t help but wonder who Catholics really are, what they believe/stand for and why is it worth traveling so far for the festival. In a sense, pilgrims go back to basics as they talk of or exhibit core dogma in uncomplicated, mundane language. We explain that reality needs an unlimited, finite explanation that is God; he allows and uses evil to bring about greater goods so much so that he used crucifixion to set us free. Hot topics such as abortion, scandals in the church and defending marriage can be tackled in the queue for a ‘free’ hotdog; the unborn are persons with great potential who are threatened by abortion; the sins of the few should not disprove the whole truth of the church; marriage is a sacred, indissoluble contract ‘in Christ who strengthens’ (Phi14:13) spouses to bear all of life’s challenges (Horn, 2020).
“Furthermore, the aura of W.Y.D breaks the catholic stereotype of idle, old people who chant out prayers like parrots; rather, it shows the true faith in the body of youths who are searching to pursue the truth” – Elizabeth
Indeed, the Pope stressed that, ‘it is Jesus Himself who is looking at you, at this moment…he knows your sorrows, your successes, and your failure… Do not be afraid. Take heart, do not be afraid’. (Vatican, 2023). This is the armour we need to keep swimming upstream in our predominantly secular world. Carlo Acutis sums it up perfectly, ‘if we recognise the enormous blessing, we have in the Lord…we would participate in the fruits of the sacrifice and let go of so many superfluous things’ (Acutis, C., n.d).
Clifton: Apart from the World Youth Day being a Catholic gathering, it is also a gathering of youths from different nations. It is a gathering through which one could experience a sense of unity and peace between the nations which is special for anyone of any faith. Conversations with youths from other countries are very common and it is also common for youths from different countries to exchange gifts originating from their country with one another. Central to the Christian faith are joy, peace and love, and in my experience these were central markers of the World Youth Day. Who cannot do with a little more of joy, peace and love?
The World Youth Day challenged me, and might also challenge someone of a different faith, to re-think some misconceptions about what the Catholic Church looks like. It is not a lifeless Church confined to intimidating buildings or dull prayers. With the World Youth Day one may come to realise that the Church is also made up of youth, who are full of life and joy, and who express their faith in ways that are vibrant and beautiful. After experiencing faith in this way, one may come to see those intimidating buildings, as places of genuine faith-filled worship, and the prayers as enriching meditations.
Why should anyone consider attending the next World Youth Day? And how do you think that we can bring the WYD spirit to our own little communities in Malta?
Elizabeth: Wyd is a spiritual ‘boost’ where anyone can renew or discover contemporary catholic faith as it is lived internationally by lay people worldwide. It will hopefully inspire you to take up the Pope’s challenge to be the rain that our earth so desperately needs (Wells, C., 2023). Drops of rain make a difference as friendships form with the aim of cultivating the international catholic community. Form a practical point of view, pilgrims develop a newfound appreciation for a hot showers, comfortable beds and easy access to food (no long ques!).
Moreover, we can promote an attitude for gratitude amongst out communities. We have the privilege of knowing and being loved by God; this is especially prominent in little things like gathering people to go to mass and creating spiritual and social opportunities to foster growth in the community. We can also pray traditional prayers, such the rosary, and contemporary ones in the form of praise fest concerts with catholic music. We might even include different languages to include our newfound international friends because after all ‘there are many parts, yet one body’ of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27).
Clifton: At the end of the World Youth Day, the Pope addressed the youth and instructed us to not be afraid. I felt this message to be calling me to not be afraid to, like Mary, arise and go with haste (Luke 1:39), and share the joy, peace and hope we experienced during the World Youth Day back to Malta; back to my family and friends, my work, my parish and the places where I serve. I felt encouraged to not be afraid to be a witness of Christ in these places.
“I would say that the World Youth Day has gone by, but this experience is continuing to bear fruit days after. During my sorrows, my failures and burdens, I continue to be reminded of those words of the Pope and of Luke1:39. I am reminded to not be afraid and to allow the Holy Spirit to work within me so that I may go with haste to face all that life throws at me” – Clifton
The gifts received from other youths serve as good reminders. Throughout the World Youth Day I also had the opportunity to network with other youths who share the same faith from Malta. This allowed me to get to know and connect with other Catholic youth groups which I was not aware of before and I feel encouraged to maintain this connection and seek opportunities to collaborate. For these reasons, I feel very confident in recommending anyone seeking to grow in faith and to connect with other people sharing their faith, to attend the next World Youth Day.