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What does a priest do at World Youth Day


Father Michael Johnson, currently parochial vicar of Family #29 in the Southtowns/Lakeshore area, served as chaplain for the Buffalo crew at World Youth Day in Lisbon. While others toured the capital of Portugal, Father Johnson offered to hear confessions at Reconciliation Park. He spoke with Aussies, New Zealanders, Brits, Scots, as well as people from Singapore and India. 

Father Michael Johnson waits in his plywood confessional in Lisbon, Portugal during World Youth Day 2023. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

“It was basically these little white confessional booths that were made for World Youth Day,” he said. “So, we just signed in and told them what language we could hear confessions in, and then they put us in the booth and we did like a two-hour block, basically hearing confessions. That was amazing.”

Father Johnson attended World Youth Day 1993 in Denver when he was in high school. It sparked his vocational calling.

In Lisbon, he heard a lot of talk of vocations to religious life throughout the  week. Different religious orders were present at the event. Father Johnson recalls seeing a lot of youth searching for their calling.

 “Maybe they’ll be encouraged as I was when I went in 1993 by John Paul II and he called for vocations. For me, that’s why this pilgrimage was profound because it was like a coming full circle where I answered that call. It took some time, but I answered that call and now, 30 years later here, I’m going back to World Youth Day as a priest. So that really was powerful for me. But it was encouraging to see that these young people were considering God’s call for them in their lives.”

Father Johnson had a conversation about vocations with a young man from England he met at a laundromat.

“It was a beautiful, absolutely beautiful conversation. And so, I told him I would pray for him, pray for me.”

Father Johnson also concelebrated at the papal Mass and received special vestments as a reminder of the event.

“(Pope Francis) was really encouraging the youth, I think, with the messages of first of all prayer and trying to return to focusing on prayer in our lives and that we need to be a people of prayer,” he said. “Also, we’re in the Eucharistic Revival, so we definitely hit on the importance of the Eucharist being central, the source and summit of our faith.”

He also concelebrated at the welcome Mass led by Cardinal-Patriarch Manuel III of Lisbon on Aug. 1, a couple blocks from their hotel.

Other Masses included Mass in Bragga with the vicar general of the archdiocese, and at Fatima.

“We were there all day. We went to Valinhos, which is the village where the children were actually from and got to see where they grew up and where the angel had appeared to them,” he said.

Father Johnson concelebrated Mass at the newer Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, which he described as a massive church that can hold about 8,000 people. He stood at the altar with “a lot of priests and some bishops and a retired cardinal.”

”That was a beautiful experience,” he said.

Father Johnson, along with two pilgrims from St. John Paul II Parish in Lake View, left a book of prayer intentions at the shrine in Fatima at the foot of the statue of the Blessed Mother, so that she can offer in intercession to her Son. “That was a beautiful experience,” he said.

Inside the chapels they saw a piece of the Berlin Wall that was left there. They saw people going on their knees in prayer up to the shrine from the big basilica. There’s a path where they go forward to give thanks for a miracle in their life.

Roughly 10,000 priests and 700 bishops concelebrated the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2023 in Tejo Park, Lisbon. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

In a much smaller setting, their hotel, Father Johnson reminded the pilgrims, many of whom received their first taste of a global church there, what church really meant.

 “I celebrated Mass in our hotel on Saturday morning before the pilgrims went off to the vigil. I preached about really what church is and kind of looked at church and being people of God and talked to them about we’re in this Road to Renewal and some people are very stuck on church as – and this is what kind of came from my experience in Denver too, is I was very insulated to feel like, OK, the church is Infant of Prague Cheektowaga, because that’s where I grew up. That was my parish community. That was the church. Then I was on diocesan Youth Board and I got to see the Church is the diocese. There are all these other parishes and so we’re all Church in the diocese. Well, going to World Youth Day in ’93, I got to see the universal nature of the Church and that the Church being the people of God. So, I think a lot of our pilgrims got to experience that themselves. So, I preached that and said, we’re in this Road to Renewal and people are worried about maybe their church building closing down, but in Lisbon, they talked to us about some of the history. Our guide said there was a terrible earthquake, I believe it was 1755, and the churches were demolished, but the Church survived. The people of God survived and so did the Church. The church buildings were rebuilt, but the Church in Portugal survived and remained strong.

“So that should be a sign to us no matter what happens to an individual building, that we as the body of Christ assembled, as the Church, the people of God, we will always survive through whatever may be thrown at us. That was my message to them.”


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