Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ! My name is Jacob Anithottam, I am an aspirant of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in New Zealand, currently on the path to be invested into the order in November 2023. I was given the great opportunity to take part in World Youth Day 2023, the international call of the Church to young delegates from around the world, to celebrate the Catholic heritage we hold dear in our lives. I wish to provide a report of my first-hand experience and my thoughts about WYD 2023 Lisbon.
Image 1: An Ariel Shot of WYD 2023
When initially poised with the question by the director of the Youth Apostolate for the Syro-Malabar Eparchy in Oceania, I was immediately on board with becoming one of the few delegates invited to be a representative of the Eastern Catholic church in New Zealand.
WYD Lisbon 2023 was a truly unique and memorable experience, which has had a great positive spiritual, mental, and social impact on me as a participant.
The three weeks we spent in Europe were split into three different parts; Days in the Diocese, World Youth Day, and Pilgrimage.
Days in the Diocese saw us pilgrims (or “Peregrinos” as the Portuguese called us) arriving in our groups and being sent to various parts of Portugal to spend time with different parish communities. We were sent to the little Portuguese town of Minde, a beautiful rural town filled with cheerful Portuguese Catholics. Many families opened up their homes to welcome the pilgrims from around the world, treating them as their own children. On top of this, 100s of volunteer cooks, drivers, and cleaners ensured that the daily activities of the groups all went smoothly. The three of us that went as Eastern Catholic delegates from New Zealand were put together in a house with a beautiful couple, who looked after us so well during the week, that parting with them felt truly as if we were parting with our own family. This week hosted many great sessions and events that helped us to understand key topics such as; what it means to love God above all else, what it means to be created as men and women, what the example of the Blessed Mother teaches us, what it means to be a Catholic and in particular an eastern Catholic, and also how to discerning our vocations. Many of the young people and speakers who joined us during this week were from places such as the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, and Australia, making this week a great intro to the truly "Catholic" or universal nature of the Church. This week also hosted programs led by the Syro Malabar community for many Catholics of different rites gathered from around the world, and also a very memorable 12.5km walking pilgrimage from Minde to Fatima where the apparition of our Lady happened in 1917.
age 2: Left to Right: Shrine of Fatima, Meeting Other Eastern Catholics, Portuguese Castles
From Minde, we travelled to Lisbon for the week of the World Youth Day conferences. Lisbon, being quite urban, was a "less Catholic" city in the sense of demographics, but the history and greatness of the Catholic Church in Portugal still shone through in the city's architecture. Even the smallest church in Lisbon was so magnificently built that you could sense the love of those who built them echoing through the churches even after these many centuries. For this week we were stationed in a school gym within a military camp in Lisbon, so the facilities were quite bleak compared to week one, but this became a bonding experience for the participants, where we realized that we were Pilgrims, not tourists, and offered up our sufferings with the suffering of our Lord. The week of World Youth Day was structured in a way that Pilgrims would attend "Rise Up" morning meetings arranged in a local church closest to where the communities were staying, then have the freedom to roam around Lisbon, attending any session of their choice going on around the city, or simply make a pilgrimage by visiting the churches and castles within the city. Sessions we participated in included key topics such as "Theology of the Body", "Mariology", "Integral Ecology" etc. which helped to expand our knowledge in various aspects of the faith. In addition to this, visiting the church of St. Anthony, the Reconciliation Park, the Holy Qurbanas and Masses, the Night vigils, etc. provided a wealth of spiritual nourishment. It is estimated that there were approximately 1.5 Million people, from every country in the world, that were in attendance in some form or another at WYD 2023, which truly helped to cement the message that the everlasting kingdom of God mentioned in Daniel 7, was in fact a vision of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Image 3: Catholic Architectural Marvels in Lisbon
After the absolute rollercoaster ride of week 1 and week 2, we got on a plane and went to France. France is a beautiful country, which at the time of visit had a very temperate climate similar to New Zealand. We landed in Lourdes, where I was blown away by the deep-set spirituality that was found there. Lourdes truly seems to be a blessed town, very Catholic in its essence, and the shrine to the Blessed Mother in Lourdes can truly be described as one of the greatest love letters we have written to our Blessed Mother. We prayed at Lourdes, lit candles, and got a chance to perform the ritual of the water as instructed by the blessed mother to St. Bernadette in 1858. From there we got on a train to Paris, which was less spiritual and more secular, thanks to the lingering effects of the French Revolution and secularisation, but like in Lisbon, the beauty of Paris can largely be attributed to the Catholic church and the religious structures we had built for the Glory of God. Churches such as Notre Dame, Sainte Chappelle, Sacre Coeur, etc. are true gems in Paris, which serve to shine the truth of Christ among the darkness of secularism. Additionally, we made a visit to the relics of St Vincent De Paul, whose incorruptible heart was stored in the church of the Miraculous Medal (from where the miraculous medals of our Blessed Mother originate). From Paris, we also caught a bus to the city of Lisieux, where we spent time at the Convent of St Therese of Lisieux one of the most popular saints in the church, and also visited the beautiful neo-byzantine style Basilica which was built in her honour. Overall, this week of Pilgrimage post World Youth Day, served to even greater increase the spirituality of all those who attended and made us even closer as a group.
Image 4: “The beauty of France can be attributed to the Catholic church”
Overall, the 3 weeks which consisted of Days in the Diocese, World Youth Day, and the Pilgrimage can be described as a life-changing experience, something truly unique and priceless. I am truly grateful to our Lord for allowing me this experience which has deepened my love for Him and for His Holy Church.
Deus Lo Vult!