Diary of a Catholic seminarian attending World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal
Hugo and friends at the airport, on their way to World Youth Day
Our plane touches down in Porto and we take leave of our fellow travellers from the dioceses of Cardiff and Menevia. We will see them again in Lisbon for World Youth Day, but for now we have business to the north. We are on our way to Viana do Castelo where we will be hosted for “days in the dioceses”.
First impressions as our coach makes its way through the city are positive. To our left is the broad mouth of the River Lima, to our right the Sanctuary of Santa Luzia cuts a dramatic figure on a hilltop, ahead is the Atlantic, big and blue as anything. The town itself is a picture and I clock a number of tempting restaurants and cafés. It’s the sort of town I could happily pass a week in, eating and drinking and mooching around the churches and museums. Things are looking promising, but then I remember I am not on holiday; this is a pilgrimage and our schedule is not our own.
What am I expecting from this experience? I really couldn’t say to be honest. I am a seminarian of the Diocese of Plymouth, having just completed my propaedeutic year in Valladolid in Spain, and waiting to start at major seminary in London in September. It was about six months ago that our vocations director mentioned that I was to accompany the pilgrimage during the summer break, and at the time I filed the information away in my mind for future consideration. Since then I have been either too busy or too distracted, and so it’s a surprise to find myself in Portugal now. This is a situation replete with what Donal Rumsfeld would call the “unknown unknowns”. I have no knowledge of the country, and to be honest “pilgrimage” is not a theme that has ever resonated much with me. If I had a bucket list, it would be mainly comprised of things I could do seated comfortably somewhere in the west country. Hopefully I will be receptive to whatever God has planned for me in this experience. Pray and live in the moment seems to be the best course of action.
I seem to have fallen on my feet at any rate. We are being hosted by a number of volunteer families, and my two companions and I have been blessed with some of the kindest people you could hope for. My first experience of Portuguese home cooking sets a high bar; possibly the best deployment of cod and potatoes I have experienced, which is really saying something if you think about it.
I have displaced the son of the household from his bedroom and I don’t know where he is sleeping; somewhere comfy I hope, but he doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge at any rate. As I lie in bed I think about the small thank you gifts I brought from home, and conclude that I definitely should have gone bigger.
We start the next day outside the Church of Sao Domingos, where we have our first encounter with our fellow pilgrims from around the world who will be staying with us in Viana. They are line dancing to Cotton Eye Joe, and they seem like a very cheery and well-coordinated bunch.
We divide into groups and are led off by some of the young local volunteers to see something of the town. First stop is the aforementioned Santa Luzia on its lofty hilltop, which can be reached either by funicular or by a stone stairway of about six hundred steps. We take the stairs. The view when we get there might even be worth the effort; even more so when we climb the extra steps to the pinnacle of the Sanctuary and can take in the full three-hundred and sixty degree vista. I pose for the first of many group selfies.
Lunch is provided for us in one of the local schools. (We took the funicular down again in case you were wondering; for those who’ve never been in one, imagine if Stannah made rollercoasters). Seeing the number of people being fed really brings home what a massive commitment the town has undertaken in welcoming us all; and we are just a tiny portion of those who will be descending on Lisbon. It’s a testament to the faith of the Church in Portugal. Could we pull off something like this back home? Rhetorical question, don’t answer.
After some more sightseeing the day ends with Mass back at Sao Domingos. It’s a typically chaotic international affair, reminiscent of Lourdes, and I am very glad of it. A day full of new sights and impressions can easily feel like a day off from God, and Mass can come as a blessed relief sometimes.
After quite a “full-on” first day, our hosts have thankfully compensated with a gentle morning in a local park where we meditated on and discuss an extract from Pope Francis’ message for World Youth Day. The handout asks us to talk about how we can transform the Church to address the needs of the modern world. It seems like a bit of a loaded question; I want the Church to be the one transforming me!
We gather later at a local seminary for a cultural workshop. The standout highlight are a group in traditional dress who give us a lesson in Portuguese folk dance. They are all young people, and it’s really touching to see the pride they take in showing off their heritage to us. I try to imagine their counterparts in England putting on a Morris dancing demo, but I just can’t see it somehow.
We have convened in the nearby town of Ponte de Lima. It is the first time we have seen the full complement of pilgrims who are being hosted by this diocese. There is some vigorous flag waving going on and I wish we had brought more of our own. I am grateful to my fellow pilgrim who brought the Cornish flag, but we could really use a Union Jack or two. Our flags sporting the Diocese of Plymouth logo are pallid and make it look like we’re trying to surrender. When we finally get a new bishop, perhaps someone could have a word?
We pack out the venue for an even bigger and more chaotic international Mass. It’s the sort of Mass where it can be hard to block out the distractions and novelties and focus on what we are actually doing. I find it good at times like this to call to mind some of the weird and wonderful (and often not so wonderful) situations in which the Church has carried out its commission. The Mass is always the Mass whatever is going on around; the still point of the turning world. Thanks be to God.
In the evening we are back in Viana at one of the local schools for a disco. It’s been a while since I was at one of these, (I am 36), and there are some noticeable differences. For one thing, young people can actually dance now. As in, there are a set of quite intricate moves for all the more recent songs that a significant proportion of them have evidently spent time practising. This is a revelation for me, and a strangely touching one. I should mention there is nothing to drink except water for the whole evening. Maybe the kids are alright.
For our last full day we are fully in the hands of our host families. Mass is again at Sao Domingos. I have to give a mention to the music, which is first rate. It’s modern but nice; just a small choir of girls with some great voices among them, and an accompanying guitar or two. It feels like a vibrant parish and I can see why my hosts are so devoted to it.
Afterwards we drive out to the country to have Sunday lunch with the mother of one of our hosts. Again I am taken aback by the kindness of our welcome in this country. It is one thing to take in some strange awkward English people as lodgers for a few days, but we really have been made to feel like family here. God bless these people. Afterwards we make our way to the nearby river for a dip. It’s a beautiful sunny day and after my swim I plant myself on a nicely warm rock at the side, watch the little fish around my feet and reflect on the wonderful experience we’ve been blessed with these last few days. The sights we have enjoyed here are available to any holiday maker, but not so the love and care that we have been shown by a small army of people who don’t know us from Adam. It has been a demonstration of the love of Christ and the oneness of his Church. Of course those things are there to be seen in our own parishes every day of the week, but maybe you need to travel a little way from home to appreciate what is otherwise too big, too close and too familiar.
Lisbon still lies ahead so this is neither the end nor even the beginning of the end, to paraphrase that other great warmonger; it is only the end of the beginning.
Hugo Lomax is a seminarian for the Diocese of Plymouth. Originally hailing from Cornwall, he has just finished his first year at Valladolid seminary in Spain and will be starting his second year at Allen Hall in London. He is 36.