Ukrainian youth wrapped in support, encouragement at WYD by pilgrims, pope

A young Ukrainian woman prays during the Divine Liturgy at the Church of Our Lady of Grace during World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

LISBON, Portugal (OSV News) ─ Maria Shubina arrived in Lisbon much earlier than other youth traveling for World Youth Day -- 17 months earlier, to be exact, in March 2022. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia had just started in her country and Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital and her hometown, became too dangerous. Her mom, who had raised 16-year-old Maria on her own, decided it was better to leave the country.

"We lived in Lviv for about a month, then in Poland, and then the Portuguese volunteers just approached us and said they can take us here," Maria said. "We found good people who helped us."

Maria said the family who hosted them was not "very rich," but "they believed in God and they helped us very much."

Maria was sitting on the stairs leading to the baroque church of Our Lady of Grace Aug. 2, overlooking a spectacular view of Lisbon's red rooftops, when a group of Portuguese youth approached her and asked her to sign their flag.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia said when the WYD crowd sees youth "with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, they offer a lot of support and encouragement and say, we're praying for you, and we're with you, and we hope that peace and justice come to Ukraine," he told OSV News.

The final message of Pope Francis in Lisbon was directed specifically to young Ukrainians.

"In a particular way, let us accompany with our affection and prayers those who could not be with us because of armed conflicts and wars," Pope Francis said during the Angelus prayer at Campo da Graça on Aug. 6, addressing 1.5 million young people spread across waterside Park Tejo.

"Thinking of this continent, I feel great sorrow for beloved Ukraine, which continues to suffer greatly," the pontiff underlined.

"Dear friends, allow me, as an older person, to share with you young people a dream that I carry within me: it is the dream of peace, the dream of young people praying for peace, living in peace and building a peaceful future," he said.

WYD in Lisbon was abundant with the signs of closeness of Pope Francis with Ukraine, where the full-scale Russian invasion started on Feb. 24, 2022. Roughly 500 Ukrainian youth emigrated to the Portuguese capital.

The pope began his first full day in Lisbon Aug. 3 by meeting with a group of 15 Ukrainian youth.

"After listening to their touching stories, the Pope addressed a few words to the young people, expressing his closeness, in pain and in prayer," the statement adds. The group offered Francis a Ukrainian flag and a bouquet of grain, and, at the end of the meeting, "the Pope and the young people recited the Our Father together, with their thoughts turned to the martyred Ukraine," a statement from the WYD committee said.

In Fatima, where Pope Francis prayed the rosary with the sick, he silently prayed for Ukraine. Asked by journalists on the plane back from Lisbon to Rome Aug. 6 why he didn't recite publicly an appeal for peace he said:

"I prayed, I prayed. I prayed to Our Lady, and I prayed for peace. I did not advertise this, but I prayed. And we must continually repeat this prayer for peace," the pontiff said.

Fatima is a special place of prayer for the conversion of Russia. Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three Fatima visionaries, recalled in her memoirs that Our Lady asked for "the Consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays" to prevent a second world war.

She said that Mary told her: "If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church.

"In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph," Mary said. "The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world."

"She (Our Lady) made this request during the First World War. And this time I appealed to Our Lady and I prayed. I did not advertise," Pope Francis said Aug. 6.

"I've been to Ukraine six times since February 2022 and was there just recently," Archbishop Gudziak told OSV News. "And people are not giving up. They understand that. A Russian occupation means death. Death for our church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is banned every time there is a Russian occupation," he said.

"There is no doubt for Ukrainians what Russian occupation will bring," he said, adding that Ukrainian youth completely revolutionized the way the contemporary world looks at values.

"What is happening in Ukraine is that there is a reevaluation of the currents of 21st century popular culture, which is very individualistic and 'me' oriented," he said.

"Ukrainian young people breathe the same air, use the same internet, basically listen to analogous music, but they are in a situation where the war forces them to confront ultimate questions. And hundreds of thousands of young people have volunteered to defend the country," Archbishop Gudziak said.

What they say, the prelate adds, is that their life matters, but they also know that "maybe there's something bigger than my life and I'm willing to risk my life for that which is bigger, the bigger community, my town, my city, the dignity of people in my country, the freedom," he said right after leading the catechesis session and Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian on Aug. 2 in Lisbon.

"I think there's a conscious belief in eternity. Death is not a bottomless pit. A moment of despair and of just non-existence. No, death is the portal, the door to eternal life," he stressed.

A group of Ukrainian-raised youth that came to Lisbon from Rome told OSV News they came to raise awareness of what is happening in the country of her parents.

"There is a danger of being forgotten and that absolutely can't happen as people are dying every day. So many deaths. You have to talk about it!" one young person, who only gave her name as Sophia, said.

What the Western world "consciously or subconsciously" admire in Ukrainians, Archbishop Gudziak said, is the story of "David standing up to Goliath."

"What Ukrainians can learn in their experience of World Youth Day is that there's a big world and the injustice is that they are suffering. Do not exhaust human experience. There's a lot of love in the world. There's a lot of solidarity, and there are many beautiful cultures and countries, and they're being embraced and loved. And I think it's a very healing thing for them," archbishop stressed.

What was a key word for Ukrainian youth at this WYD is "encouragement," he said.

"It's very easy when you're surrounded by violence, when twice in the night you have to get up and go to the basement into a bomb shelter because of air raid sirens … to get dejected and say, why me? … God, where are you? Have you forsaken me?" -- and the solution for their fears, the archbishop said, is "to hear that God loves us."

"Nothing is free in life, everything has to be paid for. Only one thing is free: the love of Jesus!" Pope Francis said at the final Mass of WYD on Aug. 6.

He asked youth in Lisbon to be teachers of hope to others.

"This old man now speaking to you -- for I am an old man! -- also dreams that yours will become a generation of teachers! Teachers of humanity. Teachers of compassion. … Teachers of hope," he said at the Catholic University of Lisbon on Aug. 3

Maria Shubina said that after the war is over, with the strength carried on after WYD, she wants to come back to Ukraine, where she misses her friends a lot.

"I moved to Portugal not because I planned it, not because I wanted it … we just moved because we had no choice," she said.

Pope Francis' final words directed to her and the rest of the endless crowd at Park Tejo was that "with this free gift that we have -- the love of Jesus -- and with the desire to carry on the journey, let us walk in hope, let us be mindful of our roots, and move forward, without fear."

"Do not fear, do not be afraid, take courage, do not be afraid!" he said.

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Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina. Catholic News Service Rome contributed to this report.


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