With financial and logistical difficulties making it almost impossible for most Lebanese and Syrian Christians to attend World Youth Day (WYD) in Lisbon, local initiatives are being planned to provide participants with a similar experience.
As August 1st approaches, hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims are preparing for this year’s World Youth Day in Lisbon, which Pope Francis will attend. But many young people all over the world are unable to make the trip due to financial or practical challenges.
This year, to ensure that they can share in the experience of WYD, 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 Christians cannot 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), referring to to the soaring inflation and political instability that has left Beirut without a functioning government. “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 the nation.”
“This event symbolizes optimism, continuity, and joy, along with unforgettable experiences that will allow young people to continue the Church’s mission and develop in different ways,” Jreich adds.
More than 1,000 young people are expected to attend the gathering on Mount Lebanon, which will take place as Pope Francis meets the young people in Lisbon and is designed to mirror the traditional set-up of the WYD, with a Via Crucis, an adoration, catechesis sessions, and workshops, as well as a large final Mass, which Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai will celebrate.
“Young Lebanese Catholics are suffering from poverty, unemployment, and 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.
As young people gather on Mount Lebanon, around 1,000 young Syrian Christians will have already begun the first meeting of its kind in their country. If traveling is difficult for the Lebanese, the added complications of the civil war and acquiring a European visa make it almost impossible for the Syrians.
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 is home to Saidnaya Monastery, a significant pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
“Given the many jihadist attacks suffered by Saidnaya during the civil war, the fact that this event can take place at all is a small miracle. In fact, for Syrian young people, it will be the first national event of its scale in history.”
The purpose of the project is to bring together at least 50 Christian representatives from each governorate in Syria, for spiritual groups, formation sessions, entertainment, and liturgical celebrations. The event will take place between August 2nd and August 5th.
“The majority of Syrians could only ever dream of attending an event like the WYD. It would be impossible to acquire visas for most Syrian young people, and they couldn’t afford the travel costs, with the collapse of the local currency.”
“Although it is an officially Catholic event, young Orthodox Christians are very welcome, and we expect the attendees to come from a mix of backgrounds,” Xavier Bisits explains.
By participating remotely in World Youth Day, Syrian and Lebanese Christians hope to show and strengthen their communion with the universal Church under Pope Francis. Some of the main events in Lisbon will be broadcast online, so the participants can feel involved, and 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. “I also invite them to persevere in their faith, their hope, and their love for each other and their country, and not to lose hope in a better future.”
Pope Francis further encourages 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 tranquility to it.”
By supporting these events, ACN is fulfilling its goal of investing in initiatives for young people in the Middle East, strengthening their faith and encouraging them to stay in their homeland and help sustain a Christian presence in the region.
By Felipe d’Avillez