LISBON – Pope Francis told young people on Sunday the Catholic Church needs them and urged them to follow their dreams as he wrapped up World Youth Day in Portugal with a massive open-air Mass and an announcement that the next edition would be held in Asia for the first time in three decades.
News that Seoul, South Korea would host World Youth Day in 2027 was a reflection of the continent's increasing importance to the Catholic Church, given the church is young and growing there, whereas it is withering in traditionally Christian lands in Europe.
Francis made the announcement at the end of a Mass before an estimated 1.5 million pilgrims, many of whom camped out overnight on the Lisbon field so they could be in place for the grand finale of the Catholic festival. Joining them were some 700 bishops and 10,000 priests, the Vatican said.
Later, before departing, Francis went to thank some of the event's around 30,000 international volunteers. They assembled at a riverside site despite the afternoon heat that reached around 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) and prompted authorities to issue an extreme weather alert. The pontiff appeared uncomfortable in the heat as he toured the site in an open-topped popemobile, but was at ease as he gave a speech from a shaded stage.
Francis largely stuck to script at the Mass but again skipped much of his prepared homily, continuing the improvisation that has characterized his five-day trip to Portugal to preside over the Lisbon edition of World Youth Day.
Early on in his 10-year papacy, Francis would frequently go rogue and ignore his pre-planned speeches, seemingly moved by the moment to engage directly with the crowd. In more recent years, he largely stuck to script especially when visiting places where Christians are a minority or where his audiences might not appreciate his informal style.
But in Lisbon, he was back on comfortable turf, with many people who can easily follow his native Spanish and seemed to appreciate his conversational way of communicating. They also seemed to appreciate the massive turnout.
“I never thought that so many people would come,” said Ana Garcia Prat, a 23-year-old Spanish pilgrim in Lisbon. “In my head, I never pictured a Mass with so many people from so many different countries.”
On Sunday, Francis urged young people to follow their dreams and not be afraid of failing, reprising a theme that St. John Paul II frequently repeated during his quarter century of World Youth Days.
“As young people, you want to change the world and it is good that you want to change the world and work for justice and peace,” Francis said. “The Church and the world need you, the young, as much as the earth needs rain.”
“Do not be afraid!” he said.
Francis gave a special shout-out to John Paul, recalling that he launched the World Youth Day events in the 1980s to inspire the next generation of Catholics. It was John Paul who presided over one of the largest-ever Youth Day gatherings, in Manila, Philippines in 1995, the last and only time the festival was held in Asia.
After Francis announced Seoul would host the 2027 edition, South Korean youths bearing a huge national flag jumped on the stage in glee. A half-century ago, Catholics represented about 1 percent of the South Korean population; today they represent 10 percent of the population of 50 million, and Vatican statistics show that more than 100,000 people are baptized every year.
Seoul Archbishop Peter Soon-taek Chung told reporters that he expected “hopefully” more than the around 300,000 pilgrims who attended the 2008 Sydney edition to come to Seoul. He said one aim would be to reinvigorate youth ministry in South Korea, which he said had suffered during the pandemic with fewer young Catholics attending Mass.
Notably, Francis didn’t promise to be in Seoul – he will be 90 in 2027. But he noted there will be an earlier occasion for a youth jamboree in 2025 when the Vatican hosts a Jubilee year expected to draw more than 30 million pilgrims to Rome.
Jonghchan Chan, a South Korean pilgrim, was in the field for the announcement and voiced concern about the weather — if it is held in August, heat could be a problem. Just this week, there were calls to shorten a big international scouting jamboree in Seoul because of excessive heat.
“I’m very happy but a little bit worried we have to welcome all other people,” the 33-year-old said. "It will be a bit worrying but we will going to make it.”
In Lisbon, young people braved a searing temperature of 38 degrees C (100 F) on Saturday to be in place for his evening vigil service and then faced higher temperatures on Sunday at midday.
They woke Sunday as the sun rose over the River Tagus. Many had slept on mats, cots and the bare ground to be in place for Francis’ Mass. Starting at dawn, a priest-DJ started spinning thumping reggae and Christian hymns from the sound system.
Francis’ message this week has been one of inclusivity, insisting that “everyone, everyone, everyone” has a place in the church. That is consistent with his message that the church isn’t a place of rigid rules where only the perfect can be let in, but rather a “field hospital” for wounded souls, where all are welcome.
Lisbon Cardinal Manuel Clemente said the pope wanted the event to be “open … to everyone, showing the breadth of the Gospel, which excludes no one and is open to all.”
“It’s something really important in today’s world to accept us as we are, and to know our place as Christians, and to validate it,” said Doriane Kilundu, a 23-year-old pilgrim from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We really support the message of the pope and we are happy to be here.”
Kilundu said the experience of spending the night on the field, with 1.5 million other people of faith, was a first for her and other Congolese pilgrims.
“I’m in the company of young girls from my country that for the first time are confronted with people from other places, and to understand that we are one nation, and for us is beautiful,” she said.
Filipe Bento and Jorge Jeronimo contributed.
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