LISBON, Portugal (CNS) – Before a sea of waving flags representing countries large and small from across the globe, Pope Francis told some 500,000 singing, shouting and swaying young people that God has called each person to him by name, not their social media handle.
“You are not here by mistake,” he told the mass of people in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII Park Aug. 3 for the welcome ceremony for World Youth Day. “You, you, you, over there, all of us, me, we were all called by our names.”
While social networks know young people’s names, tastes and preferences, “all this does not understand your uniqueness, but rather your usefulness for market research,” he said at his first World Youth Day event.
The “illusions” of the virtual world “attract us and promise happiness” but later show themselves to be “vain, superfluous things, substitutes that leave us empty inside,” the pope said. “I’ll tell you something, Jesus is not like that; he believes in you, in each one of you and us, because to him each one of us is important, and that is Jesus.”
Among the young people sprawled across the park under the Lisbon sun for hours before the pope’s arrival was 18-year-old Tyler Nguyen from Colorado; he told Catholic News Service that social media posed the greatest challenge to young people practicing the faith, “since Catholics are often perceived online as being extreme.”
But in the church, Pope Francis said, “there is space for everyone, and when there isn’t, please, let’s work so that there is — also for who makes mistakes, for who falls, for who it is difficult.”
Departing from his prepared speech, he asked all the young people to “repeat with me: ‘Everyone, everyone, everyone!'” before waves of “todos, todos, todos” — “everyone” in Spanish and Portuguese — spread throughout the crowd.
“That is the church,” he said, “the mother of all; there is room for all.”
Throughout the crowd there were flags from countries with large Catholic populations such as Spain and Brazil, but also proudly displayed banners from countries where Catholics represent a small portion of the population.
Sona Kc, a 26-year-old Catholic convert from Hinduism, was one of four people sitting under the flag of Nepal before the pope’s arrival. She told CNS the gathering of young people for the pope’s official welcome to WYD was “the most Catholics I have ever seen all together.”
She said she was particularly struck by Pope Francis’ invitation for all young people, not only Catholics, to participate in World Youth Day, and appreciates his efforts to involve young people in the upcoming Synod of Bishops.
After a greeting from Cardinal Manuel do Nascimento Clemente of Lisbon, young people read messages in various languages sent to the pope asking for advice and sharing the personal challenges they face in life and in the faith, from migration problems and hunger to hopelessness and a loss of faith.
But rather than give direct responses, the pope told the young people that asking questions is “often better than giving answers, because one who asks remains restless, and restlessness is the best remedy for routine, which is sometimes a form of normalcy that numbs the soul.”
Pope Francis urged them to ask never stop asking themselves questions and to bring them before God in prayer. “Life goes on giving answers, we just have to wait for them,” he said.
“I invite you think — this is so beautiful — that God loves us as we are, not how we would like to be or how society wants us to be, as we are,” he said looking up from his prepared text. “He loves us with the limits we have, with the defects we have, and with the desire we have to keep moving forward in life!”
“God loves us like that; believe it, because God is the Father,” he said over cheers from the crowd. He then gestured toward an icon of Mary alongside him onstage. “It’s not easy,” he said, but “we have a great help in the mother of the Lord. She is our mother, too.”