A vibrant spectacle of colour and sound greeted Pope Francis and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the Welcoming Ceremony for World Youth Day 2023.
The festive character was intended as a celebration of the faith and a demonstration of the unity and diversity of a Church that combines tradition and modernity, and featured a cast of some 50 young people from 21 different countries, as well as the WYD choir and orchestra, and numerous other musicians showcasing the Portuguese culture.
A notable addition to this year’s opening ceremony was the choreographic performance of the lyrics of the music in Portuguese sign language, promoting the participation of those with difficulties hearing.
Following the arrival of Pope Francis, a group of young people read selections from letters produced by the cast, representing the thousands of letters the Pope receives each day. The letters highlighted the questions and concerns of youth from around the world, with many asking for advice and prayers for their families, countries, and local Churches.
The welcoming ceremony continued with the procession of flags from all the countries represented at World Youth Day, accompanied by an original song, “Um Dia de Sol” (“A Sunny Day”), composed by Héber Marques especially for the occasion. The song highlights the desire to celebrate faith in Jesus.
Called by name
The highlight of the Welcome Ceremony was a Liturgy of the Word, focusing on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ sending forth the seventy-two disciples.
In his reflection on the Gospel reading, Pope Francis warmly welcomed the young people taking part in World Youth Day, reminding them that God has called them by name precisely because He loves each one of them. “At this World Youth Day,” the Pope said, “let us help one another to recognize this fundamental reality: May these days be vibrant echoes of God’s call of love.”
A community of the called
Christ’s Church, the Pope continued, is “the community of the called,” not a community of the best people; rather, we are all sinners, all called “as we are, with our problems and limitations.” We are, he said, “a community of brothers and sisters of Jesus, sons and daughters of the same Father. I want to be very clear with you.”
Pope Francis insisted, “There is room for everyone in the Church,” adding that Jesus expressed this clearly in the Gospels in parables where all are called: “the young and old, the healthy and the sick, the righteous and sinners: everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone!” And he invited the crowd to repeat after him, “Everyone, everyone, everyone!”
God loves us
Insisting again and again that God loves them, the Pope told young people to never grow tired of coming to God with questions. “Asking questions is good,” he said, “it is often better than giving answers, because those who ask questions remain restless, and restlessness is the best remedy” for a routineness that can “anaesthetize the soul.”
Pope Francis invited young men and women to reflect on how “beautiful” it is that God loves us. “God loves us as we are,” he repeated, “not as we would like to be or as society would like us to be.” Instead, we are called and loved as we are with our defects and limitations, but also “with our desire to move forward in life.”
“This is what I wanted to tell you,” he said, in conclusion: “Don’t be afraid, have courage, go forward knowing that we are loved…” And he called on the young people to repeat with him: “God loves us.”
‘There’s a Rush in the Air’
The Pope’s address was followed by a Litany invoking the patrons of World Youth Day, including Pope St John Paul II, St John Bosco, Bd Pier Giorgio Frassati, and Bd Carlos Acutis, as well as Portuguese saints and blesseds, such as St Anthony, Bd Joan of Portugal, and Bd Maria Clara of the Child Jesus.
The liturgical ceremony concluded with the recitation of the Our Father and the Pope’s final blessing.
For the finale, the performers offered a choreographed presentation of an anagram inspired by the Gospel reading and addressed to all those present: “Go… I am sending you… the Kingdom of God has come near to you.”
As the Holy Father left the stage at the conclusion of the opening ceremony, Lisbon’s Edward VII Park resounded with the strains of this year’s World Youth Day anthem, “Há Pressa no Ar” – “There’s a Rush in the Air.”