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Lebanese Youth Who Could Not Afford Going to World Youth Day Organized Their Own

Over 1,500 youth pray the Stations of the Cross while processing during a local World Youth Day in Beirut, Lebanon, held Aug. 3-6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Doreen Abi Raad)

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (OSV News) — Like a fountain bubbling with joy and enthusiasm, more than 1,500 young people gathered in crisis-stricken Lebanon for their very own World Youth Day Aug. 3-6.

The event, prepared by the youth committee of the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, modeled the WYD in Lisbon, Portugal, combining catechesis and educational workshops, along with daily Mass, prayer and spirit-filled celebrations, under the same theme as WYD: “Mary arose and went with haste.”

“This is a way to give hope to our young people, to bring purpose to their lives, to their mission in Lebanon, to build a country based on the spirit of God and His Kingdom,” Syriac Catholic Bishop Jules Boutros, spiritual director for Lebanon World Youth Day, told OSV News (known as JMJ for the French acronym).

“Our young people really need an authentic response to their question: ‘Why should I keep living here?'” said the bishop, who at the time of his appointment in 2022 was the youngest bishop in the world at 39.

Lebanon is clouded with despair as it endures a crippling economic, social and political crisis. More than 80% of the population have been plunged into poverty in the once middle-income country. Since 2019, the national currency has lost 98% of its value. On top of that, there is a presidential vacuum amid political infighting.

With the crisis in mind, Aid to the Church in Need proposed the idea of a World Youth Day in Lebanon to the patriarchs and bishops. When the French Catholic charity L’Œuvre d’Orient heard about the plan, they offered their support as well. The event was jointly funded by the two Catholic organizations.

“As a pontifical and pastoral foundation, ACN is tremendously worried about the impact of Lebanon’s crisis on Christian youth. The message of hope that Pope Francis wants to bring to youth via World Youth Day is one that Lebanese young people need to hear,” Xavier Stephen Bisits, head of ACN’s mission section for Lebanon and Syria, told OSV News.

“Unfortunately, the economic crisis has dramatically reduced the number of Lebanese youth who could attend this World Youth Day in Portugal,” Bistis said. “For this reason, we have been happy to support the Lebanese church on this event, which has been organized with a tremendous amount of professionalism, across all the Catholic churches. We are very proud of them.”

“This is truly what we call the Body of Christ,” said Bishop Boutros of the organizations’ support for JMJ in Lebanon.

A team of 300 youth volunteers, from all Catholic rites, organized the event.

Twelve monasteries, located in the picturesque Keserwan region of Mount Lebanon, about 35 miles northeast of Beirut, hosted the young people, divided by age groups, mixed from all regions of Lebanon and different Catholic rites.

“This area is important for JMJ to take place because … we have three patriarchates — the Maronite, the Armenian Catholic and the Syriac Catholic — and plenty of monasteries and congregations, so it’s the heart of Christianity in Lebanon and the Middle East,” Bishop Boutros explained.

On opening night, outdoors at the Armenian Catholic patriarchate monastery of Our Lady of Bzommar — the main venue for World Youth Day Lebanon — more than 1,500 youth were praying with the relics of Blessed Carlo Acutis.

The youth also gathered there for a two-hour Eucharistic adoration, with 50 priests on-hand for the sacrament of reconciliation.

During the catechesis session, the groups reflected on Mary’s life. One of them concluded their study by softly singing the Magnificat hymn at the Syriac Catholic patriarchal monastery of Our Lady of Deliverance in Charfet, which dates back to the 18th century.

Joining together again after their breakout sessions, the large group of around 100 youth erupted into a joyous chant, clapping their hands: “Mary protect us … tell your son Jesus to fill us!”

“I realized how special Mary is. She gave us Jesus, because she said ‘yes,'” Maronite Catholic Gloria Moussa, a second-year nursing student from Kobayat in northern Lebanon, told OSV News.

Her eyes brimmed with joyful tears as she shared her experience at JMJ: “I feel peace here and that God is with us. I am sure he planned this event for us. And we should trust in the Lord that we can raise Lebanon from its struggles.”

Clarita Nehme, a 19-year-old Melkite graphic design student from the village of Beit Mery above Beirut, described her emotions attending JMJ: “I’m feeling a great happiness. I discovered that when I’m praying, I’m crying a lot. I feel this is a happiness and a healing at the same time. This helps me to be more patient with what’s happening in our country. We don’t want to leave Lebanon.”

As a volunteer with her parish youth group, working with 100 children aged 5-13, Nehme said she wants to apply what she’s learned at JMJ. “I want to teach them that God doesn’t leave us. He’s always there for us.”

At Ain Warka Monastery — which dates back to 1660, located deep in the quiet valley of Ghosta — Johnny Abou Mansour, a 30-year-old assistant pharmacist, said he especially appreciated getting away from the noise of Beirut.

“In Lebanon’s crisis, it’s not possible for us to afford to go to Portugal. But here at JMJ, I’m fully, fully happy. It’s an amazing experience,” Abou Mansour told OSV News.

“We didn’t know each other when we first came here. Now we live as a family. We are hoping for more gatherings like this,” he added.

“We are the hope of the world. We are the salt of this land, and we have to rise up a new Lebanon, a new world,” Abou Mansour said with great enthusiasm.

On Aug. 4, when Lebanon observed the third anniversary of the catastrophic 2020 Beirut port blast, considered one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in global history, the 1,500-plus JMJ youth prayed the Stations of the Cross, with intentions focusing on the victims of the blast, their families, and all those injured and still suffering.

They processed from the “Mountain of Mercy” beneath a 56-foot-high Divine Mercy statue, through the narrow streets of the village of Ghosta, to the shrine of Harissa some 2 miles away. There, at the basilica, they received the apostolic blessing from the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon, Archbishop Paolo Borgia.

Community of the Beatitudes Sister Tidola Abdou, who had presented workshops to the youth on engagement in politics, told OSV News: “Lebanon is going through a downward phase on every level. But I really believe that God is still with us. He won’t leave us in this time of suffering.”

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, celebrated an open-air closing Mass Aug. 6 at Armenian Catholic patriarchate Monastery of Our Lady of Bzommar.

“You are the renewal force in the church, society and the state,” Cardinal Rai said.

“Your weapon is your prayer! Your ammunition is truth and love!” he told them.

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