Prayer, processions, adoration, catechism, but also plenty of fun was the order of the day as thousands of young Christians gathered in Syria and in Lebanon, physically distant, but emotionally united to the multitude who were in Lisbon with Pope Francis.
Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics gathered in Lisbon for World Youth Day in the first week of August, with over 1.5 million attending the final Mass with Pope Francis. Many young Christians in Syria and Lebanon were unable to travel to Portugal due to visa restrictions and financial difficulties. With the help of ACN, however, they organised their own events, in parallel with the official WYD, and therefore shared in the experience.
Around 1500 young people gathered for the Lebanese event, in an atmosphere which – just like the Lisbon WYD – was both deeply prayerful and immensely joyful. “Even though we are not in Portugal with everyone else, we’re feeling like we are part of this big event, and we are very happy to be here”, said one young woman, with another adding a “big thank you to all the donors! We get to have a glimpse of what they are experiencing in Portugal, and we are having the most fun!”
“I want to thank the donors who made this possible in Lebanon, just like in Portugal, so that we can have this really good experience in Lebanon, and increase our Faith in Christ”, said a young man.
Over the course of four days, the gathering in Bzommar, Lebanon, closely followed the schedule of WYD in Portugal, with catechism sessions, workshops, a Via Crucis, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and many moments of praise. The event concluded with a Mass presided over by Patriarch Rai, of the Maronite Catholic Church, alongside the Armenian Catholic Patriarch, the Apostolic Nuncio, and in the presence of representatives of all the different Catholic churches in Lebanon.
Besides the financial and logistical help of Aid to the Church in Need, the event was only possible because of the hard work of over 700 volunteers from a variety of Lebanese Christian organisations.
“Lebanon is now nine months without a government, in political gridlock and in its worst economic shape since the Second World War. One of the tragedies of this crisis is that most young Catholics could only dream of being able to afford travelling to WYD in Portugal, at a time when more than ever they need a sense of encouragement and solidarity from the Church. This local event was organised with a tremendous amount of professionalism and we hope it will breathe new life into the Church in terms of vocations, charitable work, and pastoral initiatives”, said Xavier Stephen Bisits, project director for ACN in Syria and Lebanon.
Another young participant explained that “Here in Lebanon, we are living the same experience they are having overseas in Portugal. This is something very beautiful, and at the same time it feels like a gift to us from God, since most of us can’t travel, especially in Lebanon since many people can’t get passports. So, this is a gift from God that we can live the same experience that they are having outside, and which touches us in the same way.”
“Our faith is stronger than the difficulties we face”
At the same time, very much the same atmosphere of prayerful joy was being experienced in Syria, as around 1,000 young Catholics gathered in Saidnaya, outside Damascus, home to a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and an important pilgrimage site for Syrian Christians.
Rama, from Damascus, took part in the organisation of the meeting and expressed her joy at the fact that “people from different regions in Syria could join us in this event, to give them a ray of hope in this difficult situation. The best part is that the WYD Syria is happening at the same time as the event in Portugal with Pope Francis.”
“The most touching part for me was when I presented the dance to the young people at the opening. I even forgot myself for some moments, seeing the young people so happy, and interacting with me. I felt the power coming from the ground among them. We are very thankful for this opportunity”, she explained.
Although a good number of Syrians were represented in Portugal, most of them were from expatriate communities, with only two young girls making the trip from Syria itself.
Due to the effort of organisers, including ACN, which funded the event, Christians from all over Syria managed to attend the gathering in Saidnaya, including from the Kurdish controlled north-east, and from the impoverished south, who rarely have an opportunity to be in contact with Christians from outside their own communities.
“We are here from different regions in Syria. We are living like one family. It is great to be here with my friends, and with new friends, especially after suffering for so many years in Syria. We are looking forward to being united with the Church, with our Christian young people and with the Pope in Portugal. It is my pleasure to be here, pray for us, and thank you!”, said Nour, from Damascus.
Rose, who hails from the Armenian Catholic community in Aleppo, spoke of how initiatives such as this can help rebuild hope for people who have suffered so much. “I am here today in Saidnaya with 1,000 people, which is very exciting. Living in Aleppo for 10 years of war and two years of pandemic, plus a devastating earthquake, was enough to lower our hopes, but our faith is stronger than the difficulties we face, and we believe that the future holds better days. We have hope, we have joy, and especially today, when we met everyone, we recharged our souls. It was great to connect with everyone, to share our good stories and our struggles. Together we are stronger, and we can move on.”
The meeting in Syria was presided over by Patriarch Youssef Absi, of the Melkite Catholic Church, and attended by Archbishop Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, who delivered a moving message to those present. “Some young Syrians are very lucky to represent all of you in Lisbon. By meeting them, Pope Francis will meet all of you. And by meeting them, young people all over the world will also meet all of you. Your joys, hopes and concerns will be presented by these Syrian friends of yours to the Pope and to all the young people attending WYD”, said the Vatican diplomat.
“Dear young people, the breath of the Holy Spirit that renews the Church needs you!
Also, a new Syria, built on new moral, social and economic foundations, needs you!”, the Nuncio concluded.
ACN executive president Regina Lynch also sent a message to participants, stressing that “since the crises in Syria began, I know that you have lost a lot. Homes, jobs, friends, family, sometimes even hope”.
But, she added, “it is equally important to highlight what you have not lost, a love for the Church and for your neighbour, in a country that has almost fallen apart. You, the young people of Syria, inspire me. I know how hard you work in your parishes, in your homes and in your communities to evangelise and serve. You are inspiration to the Catholics around the world who have donated to support this event.”
“A blessed time, a time of grace”
Xavier Bisits, who coordinates ACN projects in Lebanon and Syria, explained that “in Syria, the economic crisis takes on an additional dimension. With the number of young Syrians fleeing the country, due to the economic crisis and ongoing war, most European states now refuse to grant visas for them to travel to events like WYD”.
“All the young people I spoke to, especially from the most unstable and distant regions, were touched by the sense of unity and solidarity. It gave a sense of hope at a time that young Catholics are grappling with issues like military service, unemployment, and the fallout from the country’s devasting war”, he added.
His sentiment was echoed by that of Fr Fadi Syriani, a Syro-Lebanese Lazarist priest serving in Syria. “This is a beautiful opportunity to take part with the young people, to be united with everyone, to experience this blessed time, this grace, to celebrate our faith together, to celebrate joy, united with all the people in Lisbon, and with our Pope Francis.”