Twenty-three pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee attended World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, in early August. (Submitted photos)

Chaotic. Beautiful. Exhausting. Exhilarating.

Ask any attendee of the 2023 World Youth Day in Lisbon, and they are likely to use one or more of these adjectives to describe the pilgrimage that drew more than 1.5 million people to Portugal’s capital city for a week of worship, catechesis and renewal.

And how fitting — could these adjectives not also be applied to the daily struggle for salvation experienced by every follower of Christ, particularly by those who are young?

“People told me that it would be a life-changing event, and it was,” said Fr. Jonathan Schmeckel, who accompanied a group of 23 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, organized out of Fond du Lac’s Holy Family Parish. “It was total chaos, but it was the Lord’s total chaos.”

Fr. Michael Malucha, who led the Holy Family group, recalled someone telling him ahead of the event that World Youth Day was “a microcosm of the Church.”

“Just like the Church, some things at World Youth Day were extraordinarily beautiful; other things in the course of the week, because it’s a pilgrimage, were incredibly painful and chaotic — but it was all the Lord’s, because the Church belongs to the Lord just like World Youth Day belongs to the Lord,” he said. “It was a really powerful week in many different ways — the good, the bad, the beautiful.”

World Youth Day 2023 was held from Aug. 1-6. Planned events included a Way of the Cross on Aug. 4 with Pope Francis in Parque Eduardo VII and Masses on Aug. 5 and 6, with His Holiness in Lisbon’s Trejo Park on the banks of the Tagus River. Sunday’s concluding Mass drew 1.5 million people, according to media reports.

Kathleen Wartman, a 27-year-old first-grade teacher, was among the pilgrims traveling with the Holy Family group. She described “an overwhelming sense of awe” at the global representation at World Youth Day.

“What I encountered was that everyone there was on a different faith journey,” said Wartman, who is a parishioner at St. Charles in Hartland. “Some individuals there were nonbelievers, some were looking for Christ and others were devout believers.”

“Every country in the world except one was represented at World Youth Day,” said Fr. Malucha, adding that this made the universality of the Catholic Church “powerfully on display.” Nation groups would hoist their flags in the air at all the large events, which to him evoked images of Pentecost morning. “The languages of World Youth Day very much were Portuguese; English was used a lot, the Holy Father spoke in Spanish, but everyone was understanding it in their own tongue, like Pentecost.”

As exciting as the scheduled events were, it was the “in-between” moments that really struck Fr. Michael Lawinger, who also traveled with the Holy Family group. “If you get enough people together and they want what’s good, God does some wild things in the meantime. He doesn’t waste any time,” he said. “If he says he’s going to be there when two or three of us are together, what’s he going to do when there’s a couple million?”

For Fr. Schmeckel, several of those moments happened while hearing spontaneous confessions during some of the big gatherings.

“The highlight for me was hearing confession on the sidewalk,” said Fr. Schmeckel. “The first one happened when somebody walked up to me because I was wearing my cassock — and once you hear one, a line starts to form. It just makes you realize — and I know this from my regular parish life — that the sacrament works. Here you are, hearing the confessions of random people you’ll never see again.”

“Fr. Michael Lawinger had this wonderful idea of buying bottles of wine from Aldi and bringing them to the events we would attend,” said Wartman. “This was a great icebreaker, because we would share them with the various people we’d encounter along the way. As we’d share the wine, we would hear several testimonies and life stories. It was a great reminder that although all of us pilgrims come from different countries and backgrounds, we also share many commonalities.”

World Youth Day was initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985 and is celebrated every few years at a different city around the world, most recently in Panama City, Panamá, in January 2019. This year’s event in Lisbon was originally planned for August 2022, but the Holy See announced in 2020 that it would be postponed one year due to the pandemic. At the conclusion of this year’s World Youth Day, it was announced that the next World Youth Day will take place in Seoul, South Korea, in 2027.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was also represented by other groups of pilgrims traveling from the Catholic Community of Waukesha and St. Lawrence Seminary High School. Milwaukee’s own Fr. Paul Hartmann, who serves as Associate General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was also in attendance.

Despite the crush of people present for all of the events, there were still some moments of silence and reflection — like during Eucharistic Adoration.

“You don’t expect a group of 10,000 young people to get very quiet or very still, and yet you bring the Eucharist and you bring the Lord, and you can make that happen,” said Fr. Schmeckel.

“It would be chaos, and countries chanting and singing back and forth to one another, all this noise — but the moment the monstrance was processed forth with our Lord in the Eucharist — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — you could just hear the silence come upon the massive crowd,” said Fr. Malucha. “Even from where we were, over a mile from the main stage where the altar was, it was just silence.”

Fr. Lawinger said that the experience impressed upon him the need to help young people encounter Christ in a profound and intimate way.

“I think one of the things that’s really hitting young people today is, what does it mean to be human?” Fr. Lawinger said. “I think that’s something that we often miss, certainly in the Church — we show what Jesus, Son of God looks like, but I think the really unique and beautiful thing we can offer is what Jesus, Son of God made man looks like. We may have a sense of what the divine looks like, but we don’t always have a sense of what that looks like in the world.”

Fr. Malucha said that he brings back from the 10-day pilgrimage a profound sense of what is essential to the life of a disciple, and what young people need in order to thrive as Christians in a world that does not welcome Christ.

“We need the Lord. We need to worship him. We need the sacraments. We need excellent catechesis and formation, because faith and reason go hand in hand. We need lives of goodness, sacrifice and virtue,” he said. “Most especially right now, we need other like-minded people — not for the sake of groupthink, but for the sake of support, for the sake of encouragement, for the sake of persevering together no matter what may come. Whenever we lean into that in our parishes, in our apostolates, in our family lives and in our schools, that’s where real fruit is born. The farther we get away from what is essential — that’s when some of the noise comes in.”