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14 pilgrims from Holy Spirit Church in Hamburg prepare to leave for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, July 30.(Robyn Koch photo) Deacon Ron Lee, youth minister Naomi Lee’s father, dresses up as Santa in December during one of Our Lady of Fatima Church’s fundraisers for World Youth Day. The Knights of Columbus cooked pancakes and people could make a donation to take a photo with Santa. (Our Lady of Fatima Church photo)

Arkansas teens join a million Catholic youth in Lisbon

Young Catholics gather to celebrate the faith in weeklong assembly

Published: August 1, 2023      
Courtesy Robyn Koch
14 pilgrims from Holy Spirit Church in Hamburg prepare to leave for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, July 30.

The combined attendance numbers of the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 and the Champions League final of Wimbledon doesn’t equal a worldwide gathering of Catholic youth.

World Youth Day is a weeklong assembly of one million Catholic youth, ages 16-35, from all around the world, taking place every few years in a different location. 2023 will be the 15th iteration of World Youth Day, which St. John Paul II began in Rome in 1986. 

On Aug. 1-6, youth from parishes from Benton and Hamburg will be in Lisbon, Portugal.

Naomi Lee, youth minister at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton, first heard about World Youth day at the state youth convention last year. 

“We just got back from Steubenville (Youth Conference), and my kids were like ‘I can't believe there's 5,000 Catholics that are my age all going to the same event,’” Lee said. “I think being raised Catholic in Benton where we're the only Catholic church in the area, they don't go to school with other Catholics unless they're in their youth group. So to realize there are other Catholics in the area is cool, but then on a scale like this, realizing Catholicism is worldwide.”

World Youth Day will feature world-renowned speakers, pilgrim walks and Mass with Pope Francis. Because it is such a large event, each parish is assigned a guide to take them to where they need to be and help with the language barrier.

Unlike local diocesan youth events, World Youth Day will have challenges mixed in with fun. 

“I've never been, but I know a few people that have been, and they say it's actually a really difficult trip to go on,” Lee said. “You walk over 10 miles a day no matter what the weather is to get where you're going. It's a pilgrimage essentially. It puts your focus on why we are doing what we're doing. Are we willing to struggle for what we believe? Are we willing to put in the work to practice our faith?”

In addition to the scheduled week, Lee plans on taking the 22-person Benton group to Fatima, about 80 miles from Lisbon. 

“Originally, you get one or two free days in Portugal,” she said. “So we're taking our free day out of World Youth Day and going to Fatima. So they’re taking us to Fatima, and we're going to stay the night. We’re going to celebrate Mass and sightsee and get to spend our last two days of World Youth Day there. Being able to go to Fatima and knowing it’s what our church is named after and getting to see that was the deciding factor for us to attend World Youth Day.”

Holy Spirit Church in Hamburg will also be attending World Youth Day under the leadership of Sister Yolanda Padrón Serrano, CMST. 

“Really, the biggest thing is they hope to be able to fortify their faith,” translator Juanita Cigarroa said, translating Sister Yolanda’s words. “And by that meeting with other groups and other young people from other countries that speak other languages, and, of course, being there with the pope, that's of course a big thing to be able to just see the universal church at work.”

Since Sister Yolanda has only been in the Diocese of Little Rock for about a year, she was unaware of local diocesan youth events. However, she has been to World Youth Day as a religious sister before, and she saw the profound impact it had on the youth there.

The youth raised the money needed for the trip to Portugal. 

“They had food sales, they did car washes, some people donated from their jobs, and she says they're still not completely funded,” Cigarroa said. “They still have some debt, so they'll continue to work on paying all that debt back when they return.”

As only the parishes’ local guides know the full schedule, the youth are encouraged to enter with an open heart. 

“We're supposed to just go in with an open mind and experience whatever God is wanting us to get out of it,” Lee said. “So I keep telling my kids not to go in with any expectations. Just go in ready to receive the graces that we're supposed to receive. I've been a member of Our Lady Fatima my entire life. I’ve read the stories and seen the movies but to actually be there will be amazing. I think living where we live, it's hard to imagine. Yes, we have faith but to realize these are real places and to touch it, see it and be there, I think that's going to be life-changing.”

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