From World Youth Day 2023: With Truth, Unity and Love

Villanova University and Merrimack College students and leaders experience World Youth Day – and apply its themes – through a unique Augustinian lens


The Villanova University and Merrimack College students and leaders pose for a photo at World Youth Day in Lisbon

“This is the starting point of World Youth Day, but above all it is the starting point of our lives.”    

-Address of the Holy Father at the Welcome, World Youth Day 2023

Emmaline Lombardo ’26 CLAS felt as though she had had been transported through both time and space.

The towers of the Lisbon Cathedral soared above, in the same spot they have for nearly a millennium of worshippers and pilgrims. Along the streets and alleys of the Old Town, Roman and Islamic ruins and countless religious and cultural sites created a striking contrast interspersed with the bustling modernity of the city, acting like a portal through time.

It was in this space, that space didn’t exist for Lombardo, her fellow Villanova University students and leadership, and their Merrimack College companions for nearly a week in August, as they made pilgrimage to the 17th World Youth Day in Portugal’s capital. With 1.5 million other pilgrims, physical space was limited. But it was that proximity to millions of others of the same faith, from the far reaches of the world, that brought forth a palpable sense of togetherness.

“You're stepping right back into the history of the faith and Church and you’re stepping across faith as well, as the universal Church is concentrated in that one city,” Lombardo said. “That feeling of solidarity was, in the midst of this great community, a really wonderful experience.”

Such is the goal of World Youth Day, the global gathering that takes place every few years “where young people deepen their faith, experience the universality of the Catholic Church and commit their lives to Christ alongside hundreds of thousands of like-minded peers,” according to the event’s website. In its 17 iterations since first being initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985, the event has welcomed roughly 26 million pilgrims to 14 different countries, with a 15th upcoming following the announcement of South Korea as the next host in 2027.

In early August, Villanova University, along with its sister school, Merrimack College in Massachusetts, sent a contingent to experience the event together as the only two Augustinian Catholic Institutions in the country. Villanova’s group was led by the Rev. Kevin M. DePrinzio, OSA, PhD., vice president for Mission and Ministry and Abigail Gorman, assistant director for Service Immersion Programs at the St. Thomas of Villanova Center for the Common Good. Three students – Lombardo, Dane Litchfield ’24 MTS and Gina Labricciosa ’26 FCN – made the journey. Merrimack sent nine students, led by the Rev. Daniel Madden, OSA, ’14 MA, a Villanova University alumnus himself.

“It was a particular privilege to walk alongside Merrimack College,” DePrinzio said. “Fr. Dan and I had been wanting to do more things together with both schools, not only for our students, but also as a way to see how our two schools engage the Augustinian charism and how we might enrich each other’s work. St. Augustine holds as a value what he calls ‘a mutual sharing of goods.’  Being at World Youth Day together, forming and strengthening relationships… it was just that.”

Student participants from both schools, meeting one another for the first time, lodged at the same hostel, intermixed to attend various events and explore the city and gathered each evening for group reflection. Friendships were formed immediately and strengthened with the new experiences of each day. The joint nature of the trip also created a special opportunity.

“Having Father Kevin and Father Dan there, they brought the Augustinian lens to everything we encountered,” Gorman explained.  “We focused on certain readings from St. Augustine, talked about the charism of the Augustinians and got to put them into practice. The emphasis on community, truth, unity, love – we talked about all of that every night. It was a unique way we got to experience World Youth Day.”

“St. Augustine speaks much about pilgrimage, that we are always on a journey toward God,” Madden said. “It's also a journey done together. Villanova and Merrimack being the only two Augustinian colleges allowed the students to see the uniqueness of being part of the tradition of the Order of St. Augustine. ... Even though the students were from different schools, there was a common bond, and they didn't see themselves as different.”

Their experiences, however, were. Therein lies the beauty of World Youth Day. The overarching themes and purpose can be shared in community, with the opportunity for the individual to find one’s own personal significance, meaning and spirituality.

For Litchfield, that meant partaking in the pilgrimage tradition of crawling nearly a mile on his knees while praying the rosary at Fátima – something he called “a true spiritual gift” – and hearing a song at the welcoming ceremony that had also played frequently when he attended World Youth Day in Panama in 2019.

“That song that marked so much of my spirituality four years ago,” he said. “Hearing that song again was my little moment.”

Lombardo’s spiritual connection came from wandering into the historic, picturesque churches of Lisbon –many of which were open all night – and stumbling upon a Eucharistic adoration or candlelight vigil.

“To come and see almost any church, come into the presence of Christ in a very visceral way and experience that presence, it was in those moments where I experienced the greatest spiritual graces,” she said. “[In Lisbon], where all this other stuff that was happening, I was able to reflect on it, to let it sink in.”

As a trip leader, seeing students like Litchfield and Lombardo find their meaning gave Gorman hers.

“It was special to be in this space, to see how this was affecting the students and what they were all individually getting out of it,” Gorman said. “I really appreciated sharing it with this special group. … It was beautiful to see.”


Students and leaders from both Villanova University and Merrimack College visit Belém Tower

“We are the community of brothers and sisters of Jesus, sons and daughters of the same Father.”

“In the Church, no one is left out or left over. There is room for everyone. Just the way we are…. Everyone, everyone, everyone!”

-Address of the Holy Father at the Welcome, World Youth Day 2023

For the Order of St. Augustine, “community is the axis around which Augustinian religious life turns.” In the Catholic faith overall, community represents the universality of the Church.

For those young people who attended World Youth Day, that community was as represented and as concentrated as it perhaps could possibly be. Some, like Litchfield, who grew up in Indiana and ran into dozens of members to his local church in Lisbon, have experienced that sense of community before. Others – be it a byproduct of where they live, access they have, or even just the way youth of the 21st century tend to view religion— have not.

“Many young people may not see themselves as part of the Church, even if they say they are Catholic,” Madden said. “It can tend toward an individualistic spirituality. But at World Youth Day, you are wrapped in the Church. You begin to see yourself as part of something bigger, bigger than yourself and bigger than the world…  This unity of a shared faith breaks you out of your shell and inspires you to be part of this great journey we make together toward God.”

“From a Western/American perspective, it’s safe to say that we live in a culture of individualism, where the impact of the community on the individual’s life has really shifted in its importance,” Lombardo said. “[Same with] the community’s ability to be a bedrock of support for the individual, for the individual to find meaning, purpose and joy living in the community. That kind of individualistic perspective can and has bled into the experience of the faith for many living in the modern American society.

“To be able to go to World Youth Day, I experienced it as a chance to break out of that. Questions of the faith, of God, of what I am to do with my life— these aren’t individual questions. These are questions that live and breathe in the context of the living and breathing Church, that matter to not just the immediate neighbor, but neighbors across the world. Neighbors who I can now see next to me and hold their hand. With that particular challenge facing the youth, World Youth Day matters, because it allows one to break out of that.”

It was impossible to escape that sense of community in Lisbon. The sheer number of pilgrims and close proximity fostered it. As did events like the pilgrimage to the campsite where the commissioning mass took place on the final day, and the words spoken by Pope Francis throughout the week. Those addresses also drove home another key theme of World Youth Day: inclusion.

“Todos, Todos, Todos. Everyone, everyone, everyone,” said Litchfield, referencing Pope Francis’ welcome address. “The sheer image of inclusion was evident. I think that’s really important going forward as the Church shows the faith is alive in the hearts of the youth.”

In addition to the inclusive nature of the overall event, which welcomes people of all backgrounds and cultures from all over the world, Litchfield recalled specific instances of attendees going out of their way to foster inclusion. At one point, a group lifted somebody in a wheelchair in the air so he could see what was happening. It was refreshing to witness.

“[The Church] can be something super inclusive and welcoming,” Gorman said. “[At World Youth Day] there was a freedom in how people approached one another.”

We could really feel the way that hit home a little bit more each day over the course of the week,” Lombardo said. “Everybody is coming from different cultural backgrounds, and each person’s Catholicism was not the same as the next person's Catholicism. Their experiences in the faith were different but we were able to bring our different experiences together and grow together each day.”

“There’s still much on which I am reflecting about our time in Lisbon,” DePrinzio said. “The global sense of the Church, of course, stands out, as well as the many ways we are all connected.  I can’t tell you how many people I ran into, whom I know, in the midst of the 1.5 million pilgrims.  For me, it shows how God works, how God brings us and holds us all together - language, culture, background, none of these are barriers, but express something much deeper going on, a sense of oneness that is not about uniformity. It was very Augustinian in its expression.”


The group poses or a photo in Old Town Lisbon during World Youth Day 2023

“Indeed, how good it has been to share this experience with Jesus, with one another, and to pray together with joyful hearts. Now, we can also ask an important question: What will we take back with us as we resume our daily lives?”

- The Pope’s Homily at the Sending Mass, World Youth Day 2023

Perhaps, that is what Pope Francis had in mind when, days earlier, he referenced World Youth Day as the “start of our lives.” Not in a literal sense, but in the sense that for those attending, it is the start of the rest of our lives. What was experienced, what was learned, what was discussed – the hope is that all of that will live within the 1.5 million attendees and manifest itself in their daily interactions and decisions.  

On the flight home from Portugal and ever since, Villanova’s participants – both students and leaders alike – have been contemplating how they can incorporate what they felt, learned and experienced into their daily life.

“Especially in the more commonplace, colloquial day-to-day interactions with people,” Litchfield said. “That, ultimately, is going to bring about the fruits of World Youth Day in a very organic manner… Spreading out and impacting the lives of others, even in the most unnoticeable ways.”

One of those ways, as Pope Francis discussed throughout the week, is by placing emphasis on the culture of encounter.

“[It’s] that idea of encountering one another, wherever people are. The ability to go up to one another and receive each other with hospitality and curiosity,” Gorman explained. “Wanting to know where people are from, what people are doing and what makes you, you is something important to everyone, no matter where they are from. … There was an energy I don’t usually find in my personal daily life. A real energy and desire to get to know one another. I remembered why I do what I do.”

Lombardo looked no further than the theme of this year’s World Youth Day to illustrate how she can apply the experience to her life at Villanova and beyond. The theme, from the Gospel of Luke, was “Mary arose and went with haste.”

In his pre-World Youth Day Papal Message back in June, Pope Francis expanded, “Mary shows to all of us, and especially to you, young people like herself, the path of proximity and encounter. I hope and I firmly believe that the experience many of you will have in Lisbon next August will represent a new beginning for you, the young, and – with you – for humanity as a whole.”

“The spirit of the visitation is one that is a demand to enter into that spirit and encounter the other with love and selflessness and to embrace everyone,” Lombardo said. “I see myself bringing World Youth Day back to Villanova primarily with that spirit, at the front of my mind and heart, into this wonderful community I love and that has embraced me.”