VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Lisbon, Portugal, was announced in 2019 as the destination for the 17th World Youth Day, few could have imagined how relevant the message of Pope Francis' trip to the Portuguese capital would be for the life of the entire church.
Just two months before Pope Francis opens the Synod of Bishops dedicated to discussing how to create a more listening church, the international gathering of young people -- expected to bring together a million people in the Portuguese capital -- aims to be a similarly inclusive place of encounter and exchange ahead of the synodal gathering at the Vatican in October.
The pope described the type of exchange he hopes participants at WYD will have when he spoke with young people traveling to WYD from Argentina July 16. He encouraged them to live WYD intensely and be "enriched by a great diversity of faces, cultures, experiences and different expressions of our faith."
"When we leave ourselves and meet others, when we share -- when we give what we have and are open to receive what others offer us -- when we don't reject anyone, then we are all winners," he said.
And in his message for this year's World Youth Day published in August 2022, the pope told young people: "now is the time to set out in haste toward concrete encounters, toward genuine acceptance of those different from ourselves."
Seeking to create true diversity at World Youth Day in order to foster those encounters has been a focus of Cardinal-designate Américo Aguiar, auxiliary bishop of Lisbon and the chief organizer of WYD 2023. For a pope striving to shift the church's focus toward evangelization, his decision to elevate the auxiliary bishop to a cardinal drew scrutiny by some after he said the aim of WYD is "not to convert young people to Christ" in a July 6 interview with Portuguese news agency RTP.
The bishop clarified that he was speaking against proselytism and not evangelization. The pope's decision to give the 49-year-old auxiliary bishop a red hat Sept. 30 could be an indication of a papal seal of approval of Bishop Aguiar's efforts to make WYD an inviting space where evangelization can occur through genuine encounter.
At the first World Youth Day since the publication of Pope Francis' encyclical "Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship" in 2020, organizers have made efforts to make this year's WYD include an explicitly interreligious dimension. WYD participants will have the opportunity to visit places of worship of other religions, such as a mosque, synagogue and Hindu temple during the weeklong gathering.
The theological foundation of WYD 2023 states that "all young people, independent of their culture, race, sex, religion and socioeconomic situation are welcome" to participate in the gathering.
Cardinal Manuel Clemente, patriarch of Lisbon, insisted that WYD 2023 is an "event open to all," regardless of religious belief, in a virtual meeting with reporters July 20.
"Certainly there will be a strong Catholic presence, but there is another presence," he said, referring to WYD participants of other religions."The Catholic identity of this event is not less because of this, but it's even stronger, because it's as Jesus (said): 'whoever is not against us is for us,'" he said, referencing a passage from St. Matthew's Gospel. "We welcome those who are with us not only in the faith, but in life."
Cardinal Clemente highlighted the church's precedent of engaging with young people of other religions, recalling St. John Paul II's address to young Muslims in Morocco in 1985 in which he called on all young people to engage in dialogue and "to love others, without any limit of nation, race or religion."
And ahead of the first international edition of World Youth Day in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1987, St. John Paul II made no religious distinction when he called on "all young men and women throughout the world" to celebrate World Youth Day "with particular intensity and hope."
Between Pope Francis' encounters with young people, he is also expected to meet privately with some 30 survivors of abuse. That meeting will come just months after an independent commission found that at least 4,815 children were sexually abused by members of the church in Portugal, mostly clergy. Cardinal Clemente said the survivors meeting the pope will be people who are working with the Patriarchate of Lisbon and the Portuguese bishops' conference on issues of abuse.
The head of the independent commission that produced the report, which was released in February, said that over 100 priests suspected of committing abuse were still active in church roles at the time of its publication. The Portuguese church has since come under harsh criticism for not doing more to respond to the report's findings.
A memorial to abuse victims is expected to be unveiled at World Youth Day.
Pope Francis will also dedicate one of the five days he is in Portugal to visiting the Marian shrine at Fátima, where he will have the chance to pray for an end to the war in Ukraine that began after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.
Our Lady of Fátima has been linked to Russia since Sister Lucía dos Santos, one of the Portuguese children who claimed to have received several Marian apparitions in 1917, said Mary asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.
Popes have carried out different forms of the consecration since 1942, and in March 2022 Pope Francis consecrated the whole world and especially Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in communion with the world's Catholic bishops before a statue of Our Lady of Fátima in St. Peter's Basilica. The Russian ambassador to the Holy See at the time was seated toward the altar and was visibly moved.
While the pope has never ceased to call for prayer for Ukraine since the start of the conflict, his visit to the shrine at Fátima scheduled for Aug. 5 could be seen as part of the Vatican's ongoing peace efforts which have included sending a cardinal to Ukraine, Russia and the United States to meet with government and church officials.
For that reason and more, Cardinal Clemente said that the pope's trip comes at an opportune time not only for Portugal but the whole world.
"We are living in a world that is living through many difficulties right now, with the war in Europe and in other countries, migration…the climate crisis, there are so many large-scale problems at this moment," he noted.
"All of this will certainly be present at the Stations of the Cross" scheduled to take place with young people Aug. 4 with an address by Pope Francis, the cardinal said. "It will be a Stations of the Cross for the world, not only for those who are present," he said.
For a pope who repeatedly calls for a church that goes out to engage with the world, the message of his trip seems captured in the motto for the upcoming World Youth Day taken from St. Luke's Gospel: "Mary arose and went with haste."
Be it among young people, within the church or even diplomatically Pope Francis' trip to Portugal is an invitation to rise and go, with haste, toward the other.