Lisbon, Portugal, Jul 27, 2023 / 12:15 pm (CNA).
Less than a week before World Youth Day (WYD) 2023 begins, the headquarters of the local organizing committee in Lisbon is bustling with life. It’s a few minutes past 9 a.m. and there are already volunteers everywhere — some carry boxes through corridors of the old military building, others walk around on the phone giving directions to those on the other end of the line, and many are on computers in countless rooms assigned to different teams.
Outside, someone is singing the hymn of WYD Lisbon: “There is a rush in the air…”
And there is literally a rush because WYD is almost here. More than hurry or anxiety, however, what these volunteers say they feel is “immense joy” for being able to contribute to something “that will change the lives of a million young people” for the better, according to 33-year-old Audrey Abatol, who last year decided to leave her job in Cebu, Philippines, to become a long-term volunteer at WYD Lisbon 2023.
When WYD took place in Manila, the capital of her country, Abatol was only 5 years old. It was the most-attended WYD in history — about 4 million young people — and it left “deep marks” on the country and on her, she said.
Despite being from a practicing Catholic family, Abatol said she was for a long time a “passive Catholic.”
“The truth is that due to everything I heard about WYD in Manila, I grew up with a great admiration for John Paul II and I really wanted to participate in a WYD,” she told CNA.
After being a short-term volunteer at WYD in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, she realized that “God was inviting me to discover the faith more.” She re-registered for the following WYD — in Kraków, Poland, in 2016 — as a pilgrim. “That’s when God dug deep and I felt he was calling me to be a missionary,” she recalled with emotion.
Six months later, Abatol joined the Pure Heart Philippine community, taking part in missions among young people on her island with the aim of “making known the theology of the body” and what she had learned from John Paul II: “Each one of us is a blessing and has his dignity and the right to be loved.”
In 2021, Abatol accepted a job at a Jesuit college in vocational counseling. With a degree in psychology, she was enjoying the work “but the mission flame was still there, and burning more and more,” she explained. When a friend told her that he was going to volunteer at WYD in Lisbon, she felt she had to accompany him. He signed up as a short-term volunteer and arrived just last weekend. Abatol has been there since November.
Audrey Abatol, a volunteer at WYD2023 in Lisbon. Credit: Clara Raimundo/CNA
‘This is my family’
Abatol doesn’t regret the decision she made.
“Many people think this is crazy … to take 27 hours to cross the world and come here. But on every WYD, I’ve always felt, ‘This is my family. God really loves each one of us and we are part of the same great Church,’” she explained. It is this same feeling she believes the participants will have in Lisbon, because “this experience changes your life, changes you forever, for better.”
It is for this change in the lives of young people that Abatol has been working. As part of the “Caminho 23” team, her mission is to make “Pope Francisco‘s dream come true,” that all countries would be represented in Lisbon. She was in charge of contacting the regions of Asia and Oceania.
“We managed to reach our goal,” she said with a smile. “There are countries that are so small or are going through so many economic and political difficulties that our help is really decisive,” she stressed. “Now, we are preparing to accompany them in Lisbon, to ensure that they return to their countries with the certainty that it was really worth it.”
Welcoming the bishops
Assigned to a different team, Juliet Amah also arrived in November 2022, from Ghana, where she left her job as a secretary at the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) to work for WYD. Her professional experience and fluent English landed her the mission of “taking care of the bishops, from registration to accommodation, including transport and everything they need,” she told CNA.
Juliet Amah, a volunteer at WYD2023 in Lisbon. Credit: Clara Raimundo/CNA
Amah had already joined the same team in Kraków during her first WYD. There she was a short-term volunteer, which she called a “wonderful” experience that left her “wanting more.”
Today she is happy because almost all countries will be represented by bishops at WYD in Lisbon. More than 800 bishops are registered now and “everything is ready to receive them,” which Amah said makes her feel “accomplished.”
It hasn’t been easy to adapt to Portugal, with the climate and the language, and the “much less spicy” food, but Amah, who just turned 41, is only sorry she didn’t participate when she was younger. “For young people in Africa, traveling to Europe or America is always very expensive, in addition to being very difficult to get visas,” she noted.
Make the WYD closer
It is also for these young people — those who cannot come — that Luis Carlos, a volunteer from Colombia, is working at WYD. As a member of the communications team, he is one of the graphic designers responsible for the images published daily on the website and social networks of WYD Lisbon 2023.
Luis Carlos, a volunteer at WYD 2023 in Lisbon. Credit: Clara Raimundo/CNA
His first goal was to attract the largest number of young people to come to Lisbon, but now “the great mission is to be close to those who participate, and also to bring the World Youth Day closer to those who cannot come,” Carlos told CNA.
Since arriving in Lisbon in February, the 31-year-old former seminarian compares his team’s work to that of the sower in one of the parables told by Jesus: “The images we draw and publish are like the seeds and we are like the sowers, who sow them and wait for them to germinate,” Carlos explained. “We do not see where these seeds fall, but thousands of young people will welcome them and we hope that they germinate in them, that they generate some action, some change in them.”
While Abatol and Amah feel that most of their work is already done, Carlos said he feels that as WYD approaches, “the urgency to fulfill the tasks is greater and greater.”
“And when the pope arrives, our work will have to be almost immediate,” he pointed out. “It’s a big challenge, but we really want to turn digital media into an opportunity so that this WYD is as close to as many young people as possible, even if it’s through their smartphones.”
‘I experienced a little piece of heaven here’
On the same team as Carlos but working as a translator is Danielle Danowski from the United States. Aware of the important mission she still has ahead of her, which “could imply the great responsibility of translating the words of the bishops and the pope during WYD,” the 37-year-old geography teacher recognizes that being a volunteer at WYD requires sacrifice. “But what you receive is much, much more than what you give,” she said.
Danowski, who grew up in Michigan in a Lutheran family, converted to Catholicism at the age of 12 and said she read everything she could find by John Paul II during her teens. This is her fourth WYD (she was in Madrid 2011 as a pilgrim and then as a volunteer in Rio de Janeiro, Kraków, and Panama).
Danielle Danowski, a volunteer at WYD2023 in Lisbon. Credit: Clara Raimundo/CNA
“World Youth Day has a huge impact on the lives of volunteers. In addition to the work we do, we pray together every day, we go to Mass together, we have lunch together,” she explained. “Here in Portugal, we went to Fátima on foot… There is something greater that unites us all; it is a truly special atmosphere we live in preparation for WYD.”
In Rio, Danowski had the opportunity to be part of a youth group that had lunch with the pope on one of the WYD days. This time, she will probably only see him “from afar,” she said, if her work shifts as a translator allow her to attend the vigil or the final Mass presided over by Pope Francis. But Danowski isn’t worried. “The experience was already worth it, and even if I went back to my ‘normal’ life now, I would already be happy because I already experienced a little piece of heaven here.”
Where the spirit of WYD begins
For Rosa Pedroso Lima, spokeswoman for WYD in Lisbon, there is no doubt that “volunteers are the fundamental basis for building [WYD].” Pedroso Lima has closely followed the work of the approximately 700 volunteers at the headquarters and said she was personally surprised by the “immense generosity these hundreds of people showed by giving their time, experience, and life at the service of building WYD.”
At the moment, counting all the volunteers — long and short term, at headquarters and parish-based — there are close to 32,000. “And it was precisely here that the spirit of the WYD began,” she pointed out. “People of all ages [because there are not only young volunteers] who accepted to ‘leave in a hurry’ and overcame obstacles to embrace a task of transformation.”