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.

Pope Francis gives his blessing to young people during the World Youth Day welcome ceremony at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“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.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – World Youth Day is an antidote against indifference, isolation and lethargy, Pope Francis said.

Since World Youth Days were established by St. John Paul II in 1985, “they have involved, moved, stirred and challenged generations of women and men,” he said in the preface of a new book, “A Long Journey to Lisbon,” by Aura Miguel, a Portuguese journalist for Rádio Renascença. Vatican News published the preface May 2.

The initial intuition that inspired St. John Paul “has not faded,” Pope Francis wrote, as today’s world, especially its young people, is facing enormous changes and challenges.

Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City, Panama, Jan. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Young people, he wrote, “risk self-isolation every day, living in a virtual environment much of their life, ending up as prey to an aggressive market that creates false needs.”

“Getting out of the house, heading out with fellow travelers, having important experiences of listening and prayer combined with moments of celebration, and doing it together, makes these moments precious for everybody’s life,” he wrote.

“We really need young people who are at the ready, eager to respond to God’s dream, to care about others, young people who discover the joy and beauty of a life spent for Christ in service to others, to the poorest, to the suffering,” the pope said.

Pope Francis repeated his call to young people not to live life “standing on a balcony watching life go by,” avoiding getting involved and getting their hands dirty, putting a screen between them and the rest of the world.

“Many times I have told (young people) not to be ‘couch potatoes,'” not to be “‘anesthetized’ by people who benefit from having them ‘dumb and numb,'” he wrote.

Being young is the time for dreaming, the pope wrote, and for being open to the real world, “discovering what is really worthwhile in life, struggling to conquer it; it is opening oneself to deep and true relationships, it is engaging with others and for others.”

But, he wrote, the world is facing so many challenges: the pandemic has shown that “we can only save ourselves together”; there is “the vortex of war and rearmament”; the arms race “seems unstoppable and threatens to lead us to self-destruction”; there is the war in Ukraine; and many wars and conflicts continue to be forgotten, “so much unspeakable violence continues to be perpetrated.”

How are young people to respond, the pope asked? “What are they being called to do with their energy, their vision of the future, their enthusiasm?”

“They are called to say, ‘We care.’ We care about what is happening in the world” and about “the fate of millions of people, of so many children, who have no water, no food, no medical care, while the rulers seem to be competing to see who can spend the most on the most sophisticated armaments,” he wrote. “We care about everything,” including all of creation and the digital world, “which we are challenged to change and make more and more humane.”

“World Youth Days have been an antidote to life on a balcony, to the anesthesia that makes people prefer the couch, to disinterest,” Pope Francis said in the preface.

“WYD is an event of grace that awakens, broadens horizons, strengthens the heart’s aspirations, helps people dream, to look ahead,” he wrote. “It is a planted seed that can bear good fruit.”

World Youth Day 2023 is scheduled to take place in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1-6, and the motto for this year’s event is a passage from the Luke’s Gospel: “Mary arose and went with haste.”

In his formal message for WYD 2023, published in last year, Pope Francis said that the figure of Mary shows young people “the path of closeness and encounter” at a time when “our human family, already tested by the trauma of the pandemic, is racked by the tragedy of war.”