News & Commentary

Africans coming for World Youth Day set to bring hope, change to Western world

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to attend the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony July 28, 2016, at Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland. Catholic youth from African countries are departing to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1-6, 2023. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller)

NAIROBI, Kenya (OSV News) — Because of costs of travel and distance, Africa may have a smaller representation of youth coming to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon than other continents. But Catholic bishops and priests stress that the youth from Africa, where Christianity is on the upsurge, are the “now” and the “future” of the global church.

National bishops’ conferences across Africa have sent smaller teams of pilgrims to the gathering than those from North America or Europe. WYD starts in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1 — with the local opening Mass — and awaits the arrival of the pope Aug. 2. The event will close Aug. 6.

As they depart for Portugal, the pilgrims are carrying messages of hope — that young people in African churches are creative, vibrant and filling up the pews, but also that they need support from the church, bishops and their priests.

“We are shepherding them so that they know they are not alone,” Bishop Joseph Mwongela of Kitui told OSV News in a telephone interview on July 25. “We want them to know that we will always walk with them.”

Since 1986 when the first official WYD took place in Rome, the Catholic youth have gathered for the meeting every two to three years in cities across the world. Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australia all have provided venues for the gathering that is dubbed the Olympics of the Catholic church — but not Africa.

Bishop Mwongela, who is in charge of the Commission for Pastoral and Lay Apostolate in the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, said for him WYD is a meeting of the youth, who are coming together as the future of the faith.

“There, they will bring the torch of the faith and move it forward,” said the bishop, who in company of one more bishop will be leading 32 young people to the gathering. “The youth have a lot to give, and when you see them expressing their faith, there is a lot of enthusiasm, which is encouraging.”

The 2023 youth meeting is organized under the theme “Mary arose and went with haste.” With 400,000 registered participants, Portugal expects much more to arrive; some eager to attend, however, failed to get entry visas. The hosting countries often fear that some youth coming for the event from poorer countries will stay afterward as illegal immigrants. According to Vatican News, 550 out of 110,000 participants of WYD in Sydney did not leave Australia after the event.

But Bishop Mwongela explained that Catholics from the developed world need African pilgrims to come, to bring good news and to be a source of hope, because they are champions in many ways.

He said preserving the planet, our common home, is something that African youth can teach others — “creating this awareness that the world is ours and we need to … make it grow.”

The Southern African bishops’ conference sent the biggest African group — over 350 pilgrims — to WYD from South Africa, Botswana and Eswatini. Seven bishops accompany them. While telling young people to enjoy the company of many others from across the world, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, O.M.I. of Johannesburg urged them to see the journey as an opportunity to strengthen their faith.

“That will give them a sense of the worldwide church, that we are not just a small little country here as Catholics, but that we are part of a ‘bigger world Catholic church’ … they will also enjoy the presence of people of deep faith from across the world and hopefully they will also lift up their faith,” Archbishop Tlhagale was quoted as saying on the bishops’ conference website.

Senegal has sent 67 young people to the meeting, while some countries, like South Sudan, where Pope Francis visited in February, can’t afford to send pilgrims.

During the previous World Youth Day in Panama in 2019, Pope Francis urged young people to be “influencers” for God, like Mary.

Participating in the Lisbon meeting are also young Africans dubbed “digital missionaries.”
African Digital Youth Faith Influencers is a group that has a membership in over 50 African countries and was born when youths from nine of them participated in a November 2022 online meeting with Pope Francis.

Father Pascal Mwakio, social media coordinator for the group, said such meetings are transformative for the youth.

“We never tell them they are leaders of the future; we never tell them they are the leaders of tomorrow. They are the church of now,” he told OSV News. “So whatever foundation they get now builds them to be leaders.”

Fifteen of the Catholic digital influencers from Africa will be in Lisbon. African influencers have prepared an anthem for the gathering, which urges the youth to evangelize their peers in the continent. The first “Festival of Evangelizers and Digital Missionaries” will take place in Lisbon Aug. 4, as part of World Youth Day.

“It is an important journey — a pilgrimage of faith for the youth — which can give rise to vocations to priesthood and sisterhood. Some can make decisions to be married people, so this is a life-transforming event for the youth,” said Father Mwakio.

Many more will participate in the meeting virtually, not being able to afford traveling to Europe.

“I will be following the meeting online,” said Milliam Kayange, a digital influencer from Malawi. “I think it will help us voice our views and concerns on whatever is happening in our countries. It will also bring us (young digital missionaries) together so that we can be able to communicate all over Africa.”

According to Davis Ampereza, a digital faith influencer from Uganda, this new approach to evangelism has a lot of relevance since the world is in a technological development era.

“Most youth these days spend most of their time on social media platforms. If we embark on creating content that is in line with our religious teaching, this can be a form of evangelism on these platforms, and the youth would get the information,” he said.

The group holds monthly meetings and prayers to strengthen their faith. In the meetings they also discuss issues affecting different countries, so that they can learn from each other.

By Fredrick Nzwili | OSV News