World Youth Day - Lisbon 2023

I went to Lisbon for MAGIS and World Youth Day. The experience challenged me in ways I had not prepared for. Though I kept telling myself that I was going as a pilgrim and not a tourist, nothing could have prepared me for the discomfort I was about to feel. Brian, a fellow pilgrim, advised me to keep an open mind, and I am grateful because this advice carried me through the entire experience. 

There are three things you need to know before you continue reading this piece. First, World Youth Day is an initiative started by St John Paul II on the Palm Sunday of 1984. It is held every 3 years (though it will be 4 years until the next one in Seoul, South Korea). The event attracts millions of pilgrims from all over the world to pray and celebrate Mass with the Pope. This year, it was in Lisbon, Portugal. Second, MAGIS is a two-week experience leading up to World Youth Day. I like to define it as an Ignatian way of life centred on companionship, service and spirituality. The word MAGIS is Latin for “more”.  In the Southern Africa Province (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa), we also have annual MAGIS experiences in December. Lastly, this is an overview of the entire experience. In the coming weeks, I will share more detailed thoughts on the aspects of my pilgrimage that were the most impactful to me. Now that you know what I’m talking about, let’s continue.

Before going to Lisbon, my prayer life was on life support, my social life even worse. Work had taken over, yet somehow, I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Suffice it to say, I had very high expectations for this trip. 

I wanted to be able to hear God again, and to finally feel like I knew what I was doing. Being surrounded by other young Catholics who had a fervent desire for God and love of their faith would perhaps boost my own, and hey, a European summer would do me good, surely.

The first couple of days of my MAGIS experience went by in a blur. We were living at a Jesuit school which we called Vila MAGIS. I felt like I was back in high school, sharing a dorm with twenty other girls and having hardly any privacy in the bathroom. On a deeper level, I felt like I was part of a group but didn't really fit in, just like high school. You cannot imagine the immense relief that washed over me when I was appointed the unofficial photographer for our province. Somehow, I felt more in my element when I captured a moment, not when I was part of that moment. 

This changed when we went for our week-long experiments. There are five experiments in MAGIS experiences: Pilgrimage and Journey (lots of walking), Faith and Spirituality (lots of prayer), Service and Solidarity (works of charity), Ecology and the Environment (taking care of the planet) and Arts and Culture (exploring spirituality through the arts). I was doing Arts and Culture in a little town called Santo Tirso in the Porto region. My experiment was themed Embarking on an Internal Voyage, and let me tell you, this week wrecked me. It also enhanced my faith in people and my love of Latin hymns. 

You should have heard our group sing Bless The Lord, My Soul in our first Mass together. This band of twenty-three pilgrims who barely knew each other's names somehow harmonised the Taizé chant so beautifully, it was nothing short of angelic. Led by a French Jesuit named Benoit, we lifted our voices and worshipped God through beautiful melodies that moved a couple of us to tears. By the time the week was over, I felt like I had made friends for life. Each person in my group inspired me in a unique way, and I can only hope I did the same for them. 

Leaving Santo Tirso was hard. First, I wasn't ready to give up the comfy bed and go back to sleeping on the floor. I also wasn't ready to go back to sharing a bathroom with hundreds of other pilgrims. Secondly, I was anxious about rejoining a larger group of people. Large crowds overwhelm me; I thrive in small, intimate settings. I had to keep beating my chest while whispering, "All is well" just to stay calm. 

The last day of MAGIS fell on the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola. Hope and exaltation filled the air as the Jesuit's Father General, Arturo Sosa, bade us farewell and sent us forth to join over a million more pilgrims in celebrating World Youth Day with Pope Francis. 

That night, my hope was immediately put to the test. I had come prepared to live with a host family as in other WYDs. Instead, we were to lodge at a defunct train station for the week. Yes, I had a mini meltdown. No, I'm not proud of it. The good thing is I quickly made a new friend. Margaret, an Australian pilgrim, was quite literally my pillar of strength for this portion of the pilgrimage.

Thus began a week of immense activity. To get into any talk or event, one had to be at the venue at least 2hrs before the time. Even then, you weren't guaranteed entry as thousands of people would be right there with you. On one of the days, Maggie and I pushed our way through to Bishop Barron's talk at Lisbon University. We were so proud of ourselves for getting in, we did a little happy dance in the corridor. That same night, we crashed an event for American pilgrims because we just weren't done listening to Bishop Barron yet.

On the vigil of our last Mass, we (MAGIS pilgrims) trekked 12km to the venue. I walked with two other friends from Zim - Tanya and Chris. After hustling our way in, we spread our mats and sleeping bags on the ground and waited for the pope to arrive. He appeared right on time, in his cool Pope-mobile, waving at ecstatic pilgrims. The evening was filled with captivating performances, mesmerising light displays and soulful music. Pope Francis encouraged us to not be afraid and to "keep riding the waves of kindness to be surfers of love". We went to sleep under the stars, and for some people, this was surprisingly the best sleep they had all week. 

At the crack of dawn, we were woken up by a priest on the decks whom we nicknamed DJ Padre. He brought us all to life with Avicii's The Nights and the crowd favourite Comment nes pas Te Louer by Glory. The sunrise was glorious, but only for a short while as the heat soon took over. We had our missioning Mass, then we were sent forth to make the world a better place. 

Despite the challenges this pilgrimage put me through, I am grateful to God that I managed to go. I met Jesus in several small and unexpected ways, and I learnt so much about myself and the things that were most dear to me. As soon as my ankles recover from walking on those steep, narrow cobblestone  streets, I'm going to start preparing for Seoul (hahaha).

18 August 2023