On Sunday 6 August, the 16th international World Youth Day officially came to a close with Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on the Campo da Graça, the Field of Grace. In his homily for the feast of the Transfiguration, Pope Francis echoed the words of his predecessors by encouraging those gathered to ‘be not afraid.’

The evening before, an estimated 1.5 million people had flocked to the Field of Grace with sleeping bags and mattresses for the traditional World Youth Day sleep-out, which included a time of Eucharistic adoration and benediction by Pope Francis.

During Mass the next morning, the pope told young people that Jesus knows them intimately. ‘He knows you, he knows the heart of each one of you, he knows the life of each one of you, he knows the joys, he knows the sadness, the successes and the failures,’ the Holy Father said. ‘Be not afraid, be not afraid, take heart, be not afraid.’

For many of the Melbourne pilgrims, the Saturday night sleep-out and adoration was a highlight of the whole trip, as more than a million people crowded together fell utterly silent.

Clevon, a pilgrim on the Italian Way, says, ‘At the night vigil on Saturday, the sudden silence in the park and the change in atmosphere and emotion when the Eucharist was brought out perfectly summed up the unity of our Church and the love that it has for Jesus Christ.’

Fr Trevor Tibbertsma, a Footsteps of Jesus pilgrim, says, ‘At the sleep-out with adoration, the best part for me is where everyone goes quiet, and you remember, we’re not just here for a concert or to exchange flags, but we’re Catholic and we’re here to adore our Eucharistic Lord. This is only my second World Youth Day, but for me it was the same highlight as Sydney 2008.’

Throughout the World Youth Day week, there were countless opportunities to receive formation, visit the sites and participate in the sacraments. With temperatures reaching above 37 degrees Celsius, the amount of walking pilgrims had to do across Lisbon made it just that bit more of a challenge.

‘Overall it was a truly amazing experience, filled with early wake-ups and sore feet due to 20,000-step days,’ says Neve Biggin, an Italian Way pilgrim. ‘But I wouldn’t have changed a thing as it was truly a blessing to have been at World Youth Day 2023 with an amazing group of pilgrims.’

For other pilgrims, the chance to spend time together at meals was another highlight. Jaz, one of the pilgrims, says that having breakfast with other pilgrims each morning was a great experience. ‘I feel like I experienced something new about them, because it’s nice to hear about them, what they experience, and what they make me think about.’

Fr Anil Mascarenhas, who travelled on the Footsteps of Jesus pre-pilgrimage, drew a lot of encouragement from seeing so many young Catholic people gathered together.

For me, I’m fortunate to be part of this young Church with the young people, and privileged to see many young people who are coming closer to the Church, answering the question, ‘Where are the young people?’ They are here. To see the youth are there, that they are vibrant, they are in the Church, and we are witnesses to that.

On the final day, Pope Francis also announced the next location for World Youth Day: Seoul, South Korea.

‘From the western border of Europe, it will move to the Far East,’ said Pope Francis at the conclusion of the Mass. ‘This is a beautiful sign of the universality of the Church and the dream of unity to which you bear witness.’

Fr Michael Kong, a Melbourne priest currently studying in Rome, grew up in Seoul and shared his excitement at this announcement.

‘World Youth Day in Seoul in 2027—what a surprise! I vividly remember meeting Pope Francis during the Asian Youth Day in 2014. It was an awe-inspiring moment to be with him and witness the unity of so many young Catholics from diverse backgrounds. I wished that one day, South Korea may host World Youth Day, and now seeing it become a reality in 2027 fills my heart with joy. It will be a wonderful experience for both Koreans and participants from other countries to come together, share their faith stories and celebrate their diverse cultural backgrounds. I am so excited!’

In the coming week, Melbourne’s nearly 600 pilgrims will start making their way back to Australia.