The popularity of the “Park of Forgiveness” at the recently concluded World Youth Day in Lisbon clearly shows that young people are thirsting for God. There were crowds of young people in search of God’s mercy, even if it meant waiting a long time under the scorching sun. Amazed priests spontaneously donned their stoles outside the perimeter and beyond time limits initially set to bring the Lord’s consolation to tearful young people in the shade of trees. The area for confessionals was set up in front of the Hieronymites monastery in the port district of Bélem.
Three young WYD participants — a Guatemalan, an Italian and a Spaniard — went to confession with Pope Francis in the “Park of Forgiveness” on Friday morning, August 4.
Silvia, a 19-year-old student from Texas, dreamed of coming to WYD after the frustrations of the pandemic. She couldn’t find a group to sign up with from her hometown, but volunteered to help other young people, using her knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese. This young American Catholic was impressed to see so many pilgrims lining up for confession.
“I see a lot of young people from countries with a Protestant tradition like the USA or Scotland, where Catholics are in the minority, lining up in the sunshine to come and talk to a priest. It’s really touching, it shows that God’s love is real!” she said enthusiastically.
“I need a heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus, to talk to him about something that’s bothering me, to take a weight off my shoulders,” said Anaelle, from Mauritius. Ruben, a young Portuguese man who lived in France for eight years, admitted that he hadn’t been to confession for a long time and had abandoned the practice. “But why not try it again?” he said to himself as he observed the other young people, without yet having taken the plunge.
For his part, Gaspard, a young Belgian from Namur, went to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but he admitted to having been very hesitant. “I hadn’t been to confession for several years, and it was an effort, I’ll admit. But I’m glad I did it. It’s very calming, and it allows me to make a fresh start. Surprisingly, I feel calmer!”
The radiant joy of a priest from Algeria
During the week of WYD, between 10,000 and 15,000 young people went to confession every day starting on Tuesday, August 1, in one of the 150 confessionals set up in the space. Priests speaking a total of 50 different languages made themselves available to the young people. The priests volunteering for this service themselves formed another queue, before being distributed according to linguistic needs.
Among them was Fr. Vincent Kiererezi, a priest of the White Fathers of Ugandan nationality and young vicar general of the Diocese of Laghouat, in the Algerian Sahara. He came to Lisbon with a delegation of some 20 young people from Algeria — including five Algerian citizens — and was delighted to be able to put himself at the service of young people from all over the world, whether French-speaking, English-speaking or Arabic-speaking.
“I heard confessions yesterday and decided to come back today, because I was so touched to see the joy that flows from God’s goodness when we offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Young people receive God’s love and mercy, and then they are called to share God’s mercy with everyone else,” marveled the young priest, who will celebrate 10 years as a priest next year. “I’m living my first WYD, and this experience of confession has been marvelous,” testified the religious, more accustomed to the desert expanses of the Sahara than to the compact, noisy crowds of the WYD.
This missionary immersed in relations with Muslims in southern Algeria also sees in the expression of God’s mercy a way of reaching out to believers in Islam. “I meet people every day, in my daily life, who want to meet me and talk about God. Once, a young Muslim woman even came to ask me for confession before her wedding. I couldn’t give her the sacrament of confession as such, but her request shows that people need to feel God’s love. I see it every day,” he assured us.
“Muslims confide in us priests because they find we have an attentive ear. It’s important for us Christians to bear witness to God’s love,” explains the White Father, testifying to the unexpected radiance of the Sacrament of Confession, from the joyful crowds at WYD to the world’s most remote and desolate lands, where Catholic religious quietly offer the people around them oases of spiritual breath.