"World Youth Day (WYD) 2023 left a lasting impression on my life," says Sofia Aquino, a college student from the Philippines.
She represented Saint Pedro Poveda College, Manila, and the Teresian Association of Lay Missionaries.
The WYD, which was held in Lisbon, Portugal, from August 1 to 6, 2023, proved to be an immensely enlightening experience, uniting a variety of cultures on a global scale, said Aquino.
Initially, she felt hesitant and anxious because it was her first independent journey without parental guidance. Nevertheless, she was resolute in her determination to explore the world and gain a deeper understanding of herself as she stepped out of her comfort zone.
Upon arriving in Lisbon, Portugal, her true adventure commenced. She received a warm welcome from some volunteers, and it dawned on her that this was the moment she had been fervently praying for over the past months.
Witnessing millions of people come together for the pilgrimage, regardless of their circumstances, put her at ease. It underscored the realization that delegates were all sharing the same experiences: enduring the sweltering heat for hours just to secure a good spot for the Mass, patiently queuing for water and food, and navigating through the crowds while holding hands with our group to prevent getting separated, among other things.
During the beginning of the pilgrimage, the delegates had daily catechism sessions, but they did not follow a monotonous routine. Each catechism was a unique experience, involving different individuals, realizations, and reflections.
These sessions go from listening to others' testimonies to sharing my life lessons. One catechesis session stood out to her, and that was when they were allowed to do confession, which is why it became one of her favorite memories from the whole trip.
"The parish had also organized an activity where we could write down our daily anxieties and hardships on a piece of paper to surrender them to God. As I completed all these activities, I noticed that a profound silence had fallen over the whole parish," Aquino said.
Returning to her seat, she took a moment to pause and reflect, tears streaming down her face. It was then that everything became clear to her.
"I wasn't just here by chance; I was called here for a purpose, and that's what I needed to discover and understand. At that moment, I realized that there is beauty in silence. That silence could be both tranquil and profound, a space where you could be incredibly productive while contemplating your thoughts," she said.
Whenever the delegates were prompted to ponder why they had embarked on this journey, her initial thought was to meet new people and get to know me better.
"However, I soon understood that it went beyond personal reasons. I was there not only for myself but also for my country, my fellow students from Saint Pedro Poveda College, and the Teresian Association," she said.
Despite the bustling atmosphere and the immense crowds surrounding her, there was an overwhelming sense of calmness and peace. She never felt alone throughout the entire journey. She felt connected to the millions of people and fellow Filipinos who had embarked on this pilgrimage with her.
"Together, we celebrated our faith and shared pride and joy in the presence of Pope Francis," she recalled.
As the journey continued and days passed by, she had the opportunity to meet new people, but what left a lasting impression on her were her roommates—the individuals she returned to every night after long days of exploration.
"Despite language barriers and diverse cultural backgrounds, we all managed to get along. It made me realize that sometimes all it takes is that extra effort to reach out and form lifelong friendships," she explained.
"Little did I know that even after returning to the Philippines, we would continue to stay in touch. Building connections with people you encounter along the way, even those you simply exchange a friendly "Hola!" with, brightened my days whenever I felt homesick and far from my family," Aquino said.
One aspect of World Youth Day that struck her was the sense of freedom that everyone embraced.
When the delegates walked down the street and encountered another group from a different country, exchanging greetings was natural and not at all unusual. It felt as though lending a helping hand was the norm, serving as a reminder to always choose kindness, as kindness is something freely given.
"During field day or when we gathered to listen to the Pope's mass, we often exchanged small tokens from our respective countries. She shared tiny keychains representing various elements of the Philippines, such as a jeepney, a surfboard symbolizing our islands, and 'tsinelas' (rubber slippers), all bearing the name "Philippines" on them," Aquino said.
Finally, the arrival of the pope was the highlight of the whole pilgrimage. People endured hours of sweltering heat just for a brief glimpse as he passed by.
The sacrifices made by everyone to be present were remarkable. During one of the Pope’s masses, he delivered a powerful message: "Do not be afraid to make a difference in the world.
"Hearing those words from him filled me with immense joy. It underscored His unwavering belief and trust in us, the youth. Every time the crowds gathered to attend his mass; I witnessed the potential of young people to not only conquer but also transform the world into a better place. I saw hope in the idea of change and how we all united to explore and strengthen our faith," Aquino said.
"The pope also emphasized, ‘Live each day with hearts free of fear,’ encouraging me to realize the importance of letting go of things beyond our control. We should entrust our fears to God, knowing that He will take care of us. It became clear that we are all placed on this earth for a reason, and that reason is to serve as instruments of God’s purpose," Aquino said.
The WYD is an event that every person, regardless of their age or role as an accompanying individual or attending youth, should have the opportunity to partake in.
"It is an indelible experience that leaves you with memories to cherish for a lifetime. I am sincerely thankful for all the prayers and support I receive as I embark on the larger journey of life," Aquino said.
Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.” Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.