The Argentine is expected to use the event to solidify changes he believes are necessary for the 21st century church.
When Pope Francis made the first foreign trip of his papacy in 2013, to mark World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, he urged young people to make a “mess” in their local churches, to shake things up, even if it ruffled the feathers of their bishops.
As he embarks this week on another edition of World Youth Day, in Lisbon, Portugal, Francis in many ways has taken his own advice to heart. After 10 years as pope, Francis is accelerating his reform agenda and making revolutionary changes in personnel and policy that are definitely shaking things up.
Unencumbered by the shadow of Pope Benedict XVI, who died seven months ago, and despite recovering from a second intestinal surgery in as many years, the 86-year-old Francis is opening a frenetic second half of the year with his Portugal visit. He seems aware that he has a limited sweet spot of time to solidify the changes he believes are necessary for the 21st-century church, and is looking to the next generation of faithful to execute them.
“The sense I get is that this is the consolidation phase of the pontificate,” said papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. “He’s laying the basis now, laying the ground, for the future.”
And no better place to put it on display than at World Youth Day. The international rally, which St. John Paul II launched in 1986 to galvanize young Catholics in their faith, is expected to draw up to 1 million people for the first post-pandemic event of its kind. Francis’ perennial social justice concerns about climate change, social inequality and fraternity, as well as Russia's war in Ukraine, are expected to be major themes.
LGBTQ+ Catholics and women in the church
Beyond Portugal, though, Francis’ multifold strategy for laying the groundwork for the future is coming together and will hit significant marks in the coming months.
His global canvassing of rank-and-file Catholics about their vision for the future comes to fruition this October with a big synod at the Vatican. The meeting is intended to give direction on such hot-button issues as the place of LGBTQ+ Catholics and women in the church, and for the first time will feature women and young people voting on proposals alongside bishops.
A religious revolution
His words at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio now seem prescient in outlining many of the key pastoral messages Francis has emphasized over the past decade. Delivering a spontaneous, off-the-cuff exhortation to a gathering of Argentine pilgrims that was organized at the last minute, Francis urged the young to get out into the streets, spread their faith and “make a mess.”
“I want to see the church get closer to the people,” Francis said then, speaking in his native Spanish. “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”
Realizing the radical nature of his message, Francis apologized to the bishops for what was about to come, even though in the 10 years since he has only gone farther than anyone could have imagined at the time.