World Youth Day 2023 – a personal account by Ofentse Mahasha

World Youth Day

In 2017, I attended the Mini World Youth Day that took place in Durban, and my interest in attending the World Youth Day at some time started then. The next World Youth Day was due to take place in Panama in 2019. I prayed to be able to attend. God knew how much I wanted to be part of that pilgrimage; sometimes answers to prayer are Yes, or No, or Wait! I love how when you pray for something, it seemingly goes unanswered, and then one day you’re at the centre of the very thing that once felt impossible. This was my experience on Saturday, 5 August 2023, at World Youth Day in Lisbon!

It was an answer to prayer, a time of resting in God, allowing God to lead me, experiencing the mercy of God, strengthening of and learning more about my faith – filling up my cup. It is evidence that the youth in our Church are alive and powerful and it was a joy to be with young people from different countries, and to experience the unity of the Catholic Church. World Youth Day was an opportunity to share my faith, to learn from other young people, to experience the Portuguese culture and to see Pope Francis.

Moved to tears

I was moved to tears during the Eucharistic Adoration with Pope Francis at the Saturday night Vigil. At that moment, I was living in one of my answered prayers. Waiting for an answer to prayer is not a punishment – God was positioning me to receive the fullness of my request.

Being part of 1.5 million young people who attended the night Vigil in Lisbon Portugal was truly a humbling experience. I was in awe of the beauty of our mother church and the faith of young people. It helped to strengthen my faith. Seeing so many young people singing, dancing, trying to communicate using Google translate, flags from different countries flying together, exchanging souvenirs and praying together was an incredible experience! Catholic young people are alive and as Pope Francis said, “where there are young people, there is hope.”

Special encounters

I had two special encounters. First, a young girl gave me a hug without saying anything. Then, while in line to go to my sleeping station, a nun silently gave me a purple bracelet. The power of silence is that sometimes we don’t have to say anything to show kindness and to spread love to others.

A lot happened during my two weeks in Portugal, as I trusted God to lead, protect and guide me during the pilgrimage. During my first week, I and six other young people stayed with a Portuguese host family who welcomed us into their home, showed us love and kindness without knowing us at all. I was privileged to have meaningful conversations with priests. I also visited Fatima – an experience I cannot explain or put in words. We had been reminded of the importance of the Sacrament of Confession which I experienced in the City of Joy in Portugal. The priest’s message to me was, “walk in hope. In the midst of uncertainties, fair and doubt, walk in hope.”

Pilgrim of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg

It had been my intention to go to World Youth Day as part of SSVP, but God says, “my plans are not your plans.” His plan was for me to be one of the pilgrims of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, which was an overwhelming experience of two weeks of prayer and creating wonderful memories, which I hold dearly in my heart.

Before the WYD, we had Youth encounters organised by the JHB WYD planning team to prepare us for the journey – emotionally, physically, mentally and, most importantly, spiritually. I learnt that I need to be intentional about all aspects of my life – what I want to achieve, relationships and friendships, praying, helping people and my relationship with God.

As a group we were all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We showed each other acts of kindness, took care of one another and we created unbreakable bonds. There were times when we shared water, sunscreen, food, chairs and helped those who were injured or unwell. Being amongst them brought me so much joy. I learnt that as young people we are giving, kind, vibrant, knowledgeable, intelligent, fun, free-spirited, loving and prayer warriors. One of the world’s biggest strengths lies with us, the young people. We were not ashamed to pray, meditate, sing, read and share the Word of God and attend Mass. We were excited about visiting religious places. It felt as though our faith is unshakable!

Roots of Joy

Pope Francis asked on Saturday, “Did you find faces, did you find stories?” I certainly found comforting and loving faces and stories of hope, encouragement, faith; reassuring stories about the love of God and testimonies of the Lord’s mercy from the other pilgrims. I would not trade this whole experience for anything.

Pope Francis urged us to make ourselves “roots of joy” in the lives of others. As a member of St Vincent de Paul, one of my missions has been to bring joy to those I serve, help or with whom I cross paths. I find joy in helping people. I had taken an SSVP flag with me (which I borrowed from Br Vincent Williams, under clear instructions not to lose it and bring it back in good condition!). I asked young people from different countries to sign and write messages on it. Now it will serve as a “root of joy”, but l still need to explain to Br Vincent why his flag has signatures on it! I hope to take the flag with me when I have encounters with young people or when visiting the sick or feeding the poor, to serve as a reminder to be the root of joy to others.

Pope Francis gave us wonderful advice and for a Vincentian one of message was so apt: “The only time it is permissible to look at a person from head to toe, is when we want to help them get up.”

In conclusion, I would like to share Pope Francis’ message to young people: “walk and if you fall, get up. Walk with a goal, train every day in life. Nothing in life is free, everything is paid for. There is only one thing free: the love of Jesus. So, with this love of Jesus and with the desire to walk, let’s walk in hope, let’s look at our roots and go forward, without fear.”

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