The following is our translation of a preface written by Pope Francis for a recently published book by Aura Miguel, a journalist with Rádio Renascença. Entitled, “Um Longo Caminho até Lisboa” (The Long Journey to Lisbon) (Lisbona, Bertrand Editora, 2023, pagine 304, euro 17,70), the book is currently not available in English.
I still have before my eyes and in my heart the immense crowd of young people who welcomed me in Rio de Janeiro in July of ten years ago. Those journeys in the popemobile, from the military fortress where the helicopter landed to the place of encounters and celebrations in Copacabana, will forever be fixed in my memory: the overwhelming enthusiasm of the young people who threw flags, hats, t-shirts to me, who offered me a sip of mate, who embraced the new Bishop of Rome who had come to honour a commitment made by his predecessor. An unforgettable experience.
For me, as for Benedict xvi, it was the same: the first international journey of our pontificates took place on the occasion of World Youth Day — in Rio de Janeiro in my case, and for Pope Ratzinger in Cologne, that is, his motherland, in 2005, when he too had been at the See of Peter for only a few months. Both of us were “inserted” so to speak into the wake of what Saint John Paul ii had inaugurated, following an intuition suggested to him by the Holy Spirit.
World Youth Days were and continue to be powerful moments in the experience of many young people, and the initial inspiration that moved our beloved Pope Wojtyla did not waver. Indeed, the epochal change that we are more or less consciously living is a challenge also and above all for the young generations.
So-called “digital natives”, the young people of our time, run the daily risk of self-isolation, of living large parts of their lives in a virtual environment, ending up prey to an aggressive market that leads to false needs. With the Covid pandemic and the lockdown experience, these risks increased even further. Going out, setting out with travel companions, having powerful experiences of listening and prayer, joined by moments of celebration, and doing this together, makes these moments precious in anyone’s life.
Several times I have called on young people not to balconear, that is, not to remain on the balcony watching life flowing by as observers who do not get involved, who do not get their hands dirty, who put the screen of a smartphone or a computer between themselves and the rest of the world. Several times I have told them not to be “young couch potatoes”, not to let themselves be anaesthetized by those whose interest it is to keep them dazed and dull. Youth is a dream, it is openness to reality, it is the discovery of what truly matters in life, it is the fight to attain it, it is opening up to intense and real relationships, it is a commitment to others and for others.
During his experience as a teacher, Father Lorenzo Milani used to repeat these beautiful words: “I care”. “I am concerned. It is close to my heart…”. Today, after the terrible experience of the pandemic which put all of us dramatically before the fact that we are not the masters of our lives and our destiny, and that we can only be saved together, the world has plummeted into the vortex of war and rearmament; a race to rearm that seems unstoppable and that risks leading us to self-destruction. The war that has been made against battered Ukraine, a bloody war in the heart of Christian Europe, is but one of the many pieces of that Third world war that unfortunately began years ago. Many wars continue to be forgotten, many conflicts, much unspeakable violence continues to be perpetrated.
How does all this challenge young people? What are they called to do, with their energy, their views of the future, their enthusiasm? They are called to say “We care”, it concerns us, we care about what happens in the world, the suffering of those who leave home and risk never returning, the destiny of many peers who were born and raised in refugee camps, the lives of many young people who, in order to flee from war and persecution or even just to make a living, face crossing the Mediterranean and die swallowed up into the abyss.
We are concerned, we care about the destiny of millions of people, of many children who have no water, food, medical care, while leaders seem to compete for who spends more on highly sophisticated weapons. We are concerned and we care about those who suffer in silence in our cities and are in need of being welcomed and listened to. We are concerned and we care about the destiny of the planet on which we live and which we are called to protect so as to hand it over to those who will come after us. We are concerned and we care about everything, even the digital world in which we are immersed and which we are challenged to change and to make increasingly human.
World Youth Days have been an antidote to balconear, to the anaesthetic that makes one prefer the couch, to lack of interest. They have involved, moved, inspired and challenged generations of women and men. Of course, it is not enough to have a “powerful” experience if it is not then nurtured, if it does not find fertile ground to sustain and accompany it. World Youth Day is an event of grace that reawakens, that widens horizons, maximizes the aspirations in our hearts, helps to dream, to look beyond. It is a seed that was planted and can bear good fruits. Today, we are in need of smart young people, who are eager to respond to God’s dream, to be concerned about others; young people who discover the joy and beauty of a life spent for Christ at the service of others, the poorest and those who suffer.
All this was going through my mind as I scrolled through the pages of this beautiful book written by Aura Miguel, a journalist with Rádio Renascença, who experienced all the World Youth Days as a reporter. Well, no, not all of them. As she herself told me on the airplane that was taking us to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, she had been to all of them except for the first one, the one that was celebrated in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, in 1987. I told her then that that was the only one I had participated in.
What I like about Aura’s book is the choice to present the World Youth Days within their time frames, with a timeline of the main events taking place in the world and in the Church. I also like very much that the heart of the story is what she, as a journalist, as an observer and as a believer, retained from those experiences: participating in person cannot compare with following at a distance, even while reading or watching everything on television.
In the message for World Day of Social Communications in 2021, I invited journalists to “hit the streets” because all good communication, all real information is based on a personal encounter with reality, with situations, with people. Aura did so, and the way in which she brings these experiences back to us is precious. The job of a journalist is not that of observing what happens from the outside and just analysing it in a sterile way. Those who communicate and inform allow themselves to be struck by the reality they encounter, and thus, they are able to report it to their listeners, to their readers, moving them. Only those who let themselves be moved and touched can move and touch those who listen and those who read.
I hope that all those who read this book will discover or rediscover in these pages the beauty and richness of the experience of World Youth Days, and will live with joy and gratitude to the Lord the one taking place in 2023 in Lisbon — the first one that Aura Miguel will be able to follow without travelling around the world, because after decades, it will take place in her country and her city.