With financial and logistical difficulties making it almost impossible for most Lebanese and Syrian Christians to go to Lisbon for WYD, local initiatives are underway to provide participants with as close an experience as possible.
As August approaches, hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims are making their final preparations to head to Lisbon for another celebration of World Youth Day with Pope Francis, from 1-6 August. But many young people, all over the world, will be unable to make the trip due to practical or financial difficulties.
This year, to ensure that they are able to share in at least part of the experience of such an initiative, international pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is funding local events in Syria and Lebanon, which will take place simultaneously with WYD Lisbon.
“Most young Lebanese are unable to travel to Portugal to participate in WYD, because of the many problems the country is experiencing”, says Roy Jreich, of the Youth Department of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops and Patriarchs of Lebanon (APECL), in reference to soaring inflation and political instability that has left Beirut without a functioning government for years. “We believe this event is essential in bringing together young people from different regions, endowing them with spiritual knowledge and making them aware of their roles as future leaders of this nation.”
“This event symbolises optimism, continuity and joy, along with unforgettable experiences which will allow the young people to continue the Church’s mission and develop in different ways”, Jreich adds.
Over 1,000 young people are expected to attend the gathering on Mount Lebanon, which will take place at the same time as Pope Francis meets the young people in Lisbon, and which is designed to mirror as closely as possible the traditional set-up of an international WYD, with a Via Crucis, adoration, catechesis sessions and workshops, as well as a large final Mass which will be presided over by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai.
“Young Lebanese Catholics are enduring poverty, unemployment, and suffering from the collapse of their country’s political system. Today, most young Catholics graduating from university immediately leave the country. Our goal in this project is not only to unite the different Catholic rites – Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean and Latin – but also to encourage young people as they make difficult decisions and figure out their future in a country that is falling apart”, says Xavier Bisits, who coordinates ACN projects in Lebanon and Syria.
First WYD event in Syria
As young people begin to gather on Mount Lebanon, around 1,000 young Syrian Christians will already have begun the first meeting of its kind in that country. If travelling is difficult for the Lebanese, for the Syrians, the added complication of the civil war and hardship in acquiring a visa for Europe makes it almost impossible.
The gathering will take place in Saidnaya, which Xavier Bisits describes as “one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Syria, for more than 1,500 years”, and home to Saidnaya Monastery, a significant Christian pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
“Given the many jihadist attacks suffered by Saidnaya during the civil war, the fact that this event is able to take place at all is a small miracle. In fact, it will be the first national event of its scale for Syrian young people in history.”
The purpose of the project is to bring together at least 50 Christians as representatives from each governorate in Syria to take part in spiritual groups, formation sessions, entertainment and liturgical celebrations. The event will take place between 2 and 5 August.
“The majority of Syrians could only ever dream of being able to travel to attend an event like WYD. It would be impossible to acquire visas for most Syrian young people, nor could they afford to pay the costs or flight ticket, given the collapse of the local currency.”
“Although it will be an officially Catholic event, young Orthodox will be very welcome, and we expect the attendees to come from a mix of backgrounds”, Xavier Bisits explains.
Despite not being able to be present in Lisbon, Syrian and Lebanese Christians hope, in this way, to show and strengthen their communion with the universal Church, under Pope Francis. Some of the main events in Lisbon will be broadcast via video link, for the participants to feel involved, but meanwhile Pope Francis himself has sent a message to the participants in the Syrian gathering.
“I call on the young people in Syria to carry Jesus like Mary and bring Him to everyone, so that they, in turn, can be bearers of His love”, says the Pope, adding: “I also invite them to persevere in their faith, their hope and their love for one another and for their country, and not to lose hope in a better future.”
Pope Francis further encourages the young Christians to “remember that Jesus is beside them, and the whole Church is close to them, praying with them and for them, and loving them with their hope, their courage and their solidarity. They will revive their churches and rebuild their country and restore peace and tranquillity to it.”
By supporting these events, ACN is fulfilling its stated goal of investing more in initiatives aimed at young people in the Middle East, strengthening their faith and encouraging them to stay in their homelands, despite the difficulties, to help sustain a Christian presence in the region.