OMI Youth USP Sets Out for World Youth Day

World Youth Day, Lisbon

Story and photos by Fr. Raymond Cook, OMI

USP Oblates on stage at International Gathering Aug 1

The Beginning

Eighteen months ago, the Youth and Young Adult Committee investigated joining Pope Francis for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. At the June 2022 Provincial Council meeting, it was decided that sending Young Adults from various parts of the USP would be the preferred method of making this pilgrimage happen. Young Adults from San Antonio, San Diego, Buffalo, NY, and Tijuana answered the call after invitations were sent to all the parishes and missions of the USP. In total, 48 pilgrims began their journey through prayer groups, fundraising, online meetings, and learning about the WYD theme “Mary arose and went in haste.”

Oblate prenovices from Tijuana with Fathers Jesse Esqueda (center) and Ray Cook (second from right)

The Arrival1

Most of the group finally met in person on July 30th, 2023, in Lisbon for an Oblate opening Mass and welcome dinner and instructions for the week. Though some were delayed by more than a day, we were excited to begin our pilgrimage! 

Walking to the opening Mass on Aug. 1

On July 31st, our first stop would be a 2-hour bus ride to Fatima to celebrate an outdoor Mass with thousands of other pilgrims. In addition, many took time to climb Apparition Hill and walk the Stations of the Cross. The long day was complete when we returned to Lisbon in the evening, taking time to explore the city and determine our route for the next day.

On August 1st, we went in haste 3 miles away to an international Oblate Gathering at 9 in the morning. This allowed our young adults, scholastics, pre-novices, and priests from the USP to mingle with our greater Oblate community. It was truly a special moment that included sharing, listening, an address from the Superior General, and a lot of animation! After the gathering, we headed towards the park where the opening Mass for World Youth Day would be celebrated with roughly half a million other pilgrims, not knowing that as the week progressed, nearly one million more pilgrims would join as the week went on.


Leading up to the pilgrimage was the idea of having some of our scholastics and young adults as part of the prayer and animation teams for the USCCB. We were not just going as a pilgrimage but also as a working group for English and Spanish-speaking pilgrims from around the world. The WYD committee called these catechetical sessions “Rise-UP!” After organizing sites and themes, the USCCB had a total of 19 sites, they were responsible for all around and within the city of Lisbon. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the USP took responsibility for two sites: one English Speaking and one Spanish Speaking. 

The English-speaking “Rise UP” group included Oblate Father Ray Cook (far right) Sch. Bro, Pablo Henning (next to Fr. Cook) and 4th from right, Fr. Felix Nyambe, and Sch. Bro. Maximilien Kenfack, (far left)

The Rise-Up sessions began at 9:30 am each day from August 2nd to August 4th. The purpose was to animate and create listening sessions for bishops worldwide so that the young adults at WYD could express their hopes and desire for the church. The listening sessions leaned heavily on our Oblate history by tailoring the sessions by incorporating letters from St. Eugene to members of the Congregations. The sessions concluded with an address by the Bishop assigned to the session, followed by Mass, to conclude by 12:30 pm in time for lunch. The afternoons allowed our pilgrims to take part in hundreds of events around the city, such as visiting relics, praying with the Brother of Taizé, exploring churches, Eucharistic Adoration, films on Saints, and lessons on Laudato Si. Packed afternoons led into the late evening with other events!

In the Evenings

On the evening of August 2nd there were large gatherings by groups. Our group split to attend one welcoming session with the USA Bishop and one with The Bishops of Mexico. This included concerts, addresses by the Bishops, and outdoor adoration, with a procession with over twenty-thousand pilgrims at each site.

On August 3rd, we finally got a glimpse of Pope Francis for the welcoming address with hundreds of thousands of Pilgrims crammed together in a park. It was an electric and vibrant moment for many pilgrims who were able to see the Pope in person for the first time in their lives! It was also at this time that we found it nearly impossible to move as a large group together, and though we were separated at times, we were united in the common pilgrimage and would meet up in the late evenings to talk about the experiences we were having. Evening sharing and exploring were truly graced moments. After things were winding down for the day, many when to dinner at the 10 pm hour. Some chose to rest and prepare for the next day!

Pope Francis addresses the crowd at WYD. (Photo by OMIWORLD.ORG)

Friday, August 4th, would be the only time for all of us to gather one last time without attending a WYD event. We decided the next course of action would be to fellowship and have fun! So we headed out as a group of 48 to eat dinner and “take over” a local restaurant. The restaurant staff joined in our singing and dancing and were so grateful to have a vibrant group to be with that night. After dinner, we took our joy-filled group into the main square of Lisbon, a mega speaker in hand, and began various line dances and singing. It did not take long before hundreds of other pilgrims joined the dancing and fun!  The Oblates of the USP were now animating people from all over the world!!!  FYI, this street dancing was a nightly occurrence with our group and the group leaders could not have been more proud of our young adults.

USP taking over the main square

The Vigil On August 5th, our instructions were simple, but the task was challenging. After celebrating Mass in the hotel lobby we set out towards the vigil site in smaller groups. Some chose to walk; some chose to take metro and walk but everyone arrived at the Vigil site dubbed “The Camp of Grace.” The pilgrimage to the vigil site took between 3 and 8 hours depending on the mode of transportation and if stops were needed to care for each other. Once we arrived at the park, we realized that to get to our section it would be another hour of walking. Though we could not see the altar from our sections there were jumbotrons and speakers readily available. Our site was very rocky, so much so that our tarps were no help stopping most of our blow-up devices from popping. There was also a lot of wind, and the temperatures were in the mid-90s. Each time the wind blew, dust and dirt would fly as there were no grassy areas where we were located. Covering our faces with clothing or masks and using umbrellas to take cover from the sun were common throughout the park. Even though this may sound like a downer in terms of camping out, it did not stop the joy that was spreading throughout the camp and the excitement of 1,500,000 million people waiting for the Holy Father!  And arrive he did with a brief address to prepare us for our pilgrimage home along with a holy hour across the camp. The evening “concluded” with a 1-hour movie on Climate Change that began around 11:45 in the evening. The drums and singing from various groups would play until 5 am. Some of the group who had flights home the next day had to begin a long journey back to the hotel home at 1:00 am. Saying goodbye to the friendship and bonds formed during the entire week.

Selfie time at WYD for these USP youth

The Mass with Pope Francis

Sunday, August 6th brought us to the culmination of events at 9:00 am to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis. But not before being woken up with house music at 7 am being spun by a priest who was also a DJ! (see Pope’s homily and other addresses for quotes on the Vatican site).  Once Mass was over the walk back to the hotel began, and temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. After walking for a couple of hours, the metro or bus was the method for returning back to the hotel. That evening, for those who were left to fly out Monday morning we had a final gathering and dinner (and of course, line dancing in the streets one last time).

Group photo of Oblates with Superior General Chicho Rois (center, standing) includes USP Oblates, Fr. Jesse Esqueda (lower right) Fr. Stephen Montez (back row, third from left), Fr. Ray Cook (back row in cowboy hat, sixth from left)

The Journey Home

Over the course of the week, we shared many deep moments and what we thought were the graces each of us received. It seemed to be a long week and a lot of work as we were immersed in all the activities, but at the same time, it flew by quickly. It was indeed a pilgrimage that included a lot of struggles and challenges, tears and laughter, prayer and joy. In the end, all of us realized that we did not do any of this alone, we were supported by the people praying with us back home, by the funding we received, by the support from the provincial council, and most of all by the presence of Jesus Christ that we encountered along the Way. Now it’s our turn to “go in haste” and bring the Word of God to others we encounter at home.

More Images from World Youth Day 2023

(L-R) Sch. Brothers Pablo Henning, Maximilien Kenfack, Superior General Chicho Rois and Etienne Kabemba
(L-R) Fr. Felix Nyamba, Fr. Ray Cook, Oscar Donahue (young adult group of Buffalo, NY), Fr. Stephen Montez, Fr. Jesse Esqueda