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World Youth Day closing Mass offers direction from Pope


Most World Youth Day pilgrims will say the highlight of the international event is closing Mass with the pope on Sunday morning. St. John Paul II began the tradition in 1985. It has been continued by Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis.

Over a million pilgrims cheer en Masse at the closing Mass of World Youth Day. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

“The closing Mass was great,” said Sarah Leahy, youth minister for Our Lady of Sacred Heart Parish in Orchard Park, who led a group from Buffalo to the international event held in Lisbon, Portugal Aug.1-6.

The papal Mass usually takes place in an open park, often involving a hike of several miles from any main roads. Lisbon’s Mass took place in Tejo Park, a little closer to the city. Leahy compares it to Buffalo’s Outer Harbor with pilgrims marching down Route 5 to get there.

“World Youth Day vigils are a unique experience,” Leahy said. An estimated 1.5 million pilgrims came from across the globe to participate in the Mass. People often stood shoulder to shoulder during the vigil Mass and Sunday morning Mass. Between the two, a village of tents and sleeping bags litter the park.

Pilgrims from across the globe met and shared their faith, culture and love with each other at the closing Mass of World Youth Day on Aug. 6. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

“The sleeping area was much dustier,” said Leahy, who underwent the experience in Krakow, Poland in 2016. “There was not grass under us. It was dusty and rocky. What a thing to really embody being a pilgrim traveler and like so much scripture and Masses have been, and thinking about Mary and her feast day and her traveling and just being dusty and dirty. You really felt like in that moment, wow, me and 1.5 million people, we’re all in this together. Like we’re all dusty and dirty and we just want the same thing. We want this encounter with Jesus and this Mass.”

Pope Francis gave the pilgrims, most of whom were young adults, three instructions – to shine to counter the darkness of life; listen so they do not follow the wrong path; and do not be afraid as they head out to change the world.

“The pope really, I think there was a great connection,” said Father Michael Johnson, parochial vicar for Family #29, who concelebrated the Mass. “The youth were very impressed with him. I think some people have said Francis is very much like a grandfather figure, and it did feel that way. I mean, he was just very warm, very welcoming, very caring. And his other message at the papal Mass that he ended his homily with was ‘be not afraid.’ And he kept repeating that over and over and kind of the message to the youth of, we know what’s going on in our society right now. We know of all the challenges that we face as church and as Catholics, but be not afraid. Rely on Jesus. Rely on him to be your strength and, and to be your focus in your life instead of these other things which might distract you in the world.”

Tejo Park in Lisbon, Portugal, became a campground for World Youth Day pilgrims who slept under the stars in anticipation of Sunday Mass with Pope Francis. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

Leahy said the experience really defined her role as a disciple of Christ.

“The real encouragement of being sent out from here. We’ve all had this experience and more so filled, but it’s not ours to hold tight onto. It’s to give away and to share; invite other people into this relationship with Jesus that we’ve been able to experience while we were there,” she said.

As the new day breaks, pilgrims continue to share their faith with the new international friends they met in Lisbon. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leahy)

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