The photographer Guadalupe de la Vallina said, over a drink with young Catholic humanitarians a few years ago in Madrid, that "there is nothing sexier than the truth."
If that truth - handed down across the hands of time from generation to generation, like that mystical repository that explains to us from the very moment of our conception - is further supported by a bombproof authenticity, the odds are that the person who embodies it is someone you want to keep close by for the rest of your life.
This Augustinian Youth Encounter in Lisbon has brought together around three hundred young people for five days of workshops, activities, long moments of prayer and pilgrimages such as the one to the Sanctuary of Fatima.
There was also time to "make a noise" before Pope Francis himself inhales the ocean air at the mouth of the Tagus; embodying the memory of Freddy Mercury at Wembley after leaving the Church of Portela; revisiting the White Stripes in the Church of Gracia with "I am from the Augustinians"; dancing to the sounds of Puerto Rico (habits and all!) under Carioca whistles and the exuberant babble of North Americans, Belgians, Filipinos, Costa Ricans, Venezuelans, Spaniards, Bolivians, Chileans, Czechs, Colombians, Australians and the General Curia, who joined in when it was time to shower the air with compliments to Mary.
That momentary outburst of joy was discreetly encouraged by Fr João, general coordinator of AYE Lisbon 2023, on learning that we had to wait thirty minutes, hand in hand, until the police could escort us to the meeting venue: "Let them dance, let them sing, let them enjoy themselves in the meantime. Entertain them!”.
"Thank God for the gift of each one of you"
On the last day of the AYE, Fr Alejandro was able to spend an hour with the young Augustinians, answering their questions.
"I have been taking part in these meetings since 1992 and I can say that I have seen a very united and mature group when talking to you," Fr Alejandro told them. "I don't know if we religious are able to pray as profoundly as you have been doing. I thank God for the gift that each one of you is."
Although there was not enough time to address each individual question posed to him, Father General publicly committed himself to address, with his Council, shared concerns raised by the participants of the AYE on pastoral and vocational matters, as well as on challenges that Augustinians are currently facing with regard to the future.
"We have a very rich charism that we must protect and promote … It says in the Pontifical Yearbook that the Augustinian charism is unity in charity. We have many other facets, of course, but this is the one I see most appreciated by other superiors when I speak to them about St. Augustine. They show an enormous respect and appreciation for the richness of our spirituality...".
“I invite you to live without fear," Fr Alejandro continued from the lectern. “The recklessness associated with youth wanting to do things, and doing your best in the attempt, can be forgiven. But we cannot stop living. Let us live life intensely, purposefully! We will fall, yes, but as St Augustine tells us, there is no other way but to get up and keep walking", linking directly to the motto of this AYE.
Then, in response to a question posed by one of the young people, Fr Alejandro spoke about the uniqueness of God, "old and new", and about our life, understood as "a pilgrimage towards the encounter with Him." To prepare for that encounter, the Prior General spoke of the importance of growing in our interiority: "We don't get to meet ourselves. So it can be difficult to know who I am. That is why the interiority of which we speak is so important - to recognise myself in my actions".
Finally, before bidding an affectionate farewell to the young people, Father General reminded them of Augustinian tenderness, with its emphasis on the importance of "truly loving one another, because he who truly loves and respects the other always forgives." He continued, "This, young people of the AYE, is what fills our hearts most, because we understand that when I love others, God also loves me … This is why I ask you: love intensely, with passion, with respect, with charity.”
Emotion in the Church of Grace
The Augustinian convent of the Church of Grace hosted one of the most special evenings of this AYE. After lunch in its hundred-year-old cloister - just one of many tens of thousands such meals taken by Augustinians in Portugal down the centuries - the AYE participants were invited to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving with the Father General.
These were touching moments, as affirmed by the Prior General and Fr Miguel Ángel San Gregorio - who thanked the two Augustinian communities that had worked hard to deliver a successful Encounter - and by Fr Edward Daleng, who wished particularly to thank Fr João and his team, especially the local Portuguese volunteers, some of whom had to return to their places of work straight after the last act of the AYE, having sacrificed and dedicated their "days off" to a happy and joyous Encounter for everyone.
For his part, the Assistant General for Southern Europe, Fr Javier Pérez Barba, shared with the Lisbon communications office his own impressions of the moments experienced during the Mass, where the gratitude and appreciation of the young people that had resounded all week, continued. "This Encounter was truly an encounter; with Christ and among the participants, because of the bonds that have been created. A truly Youthful Encounter because of the vivacity, vitality and joy with which it has been celebrated from start to finish. And a truly Augustinian Encounter, which has taken shape during these days of grace in which the Lord has not only sown the seed of the Gospel in the good soil which is the heart of these young people, but it has also been possible to see and gather the fruit."
The marquee has been folded; the food stands are packed away; and the stage, the sound and light technicians and most of the volunteers are gone. The only vestiges left are the clothes laid out for the young people who, together with hundreds of thousands of their brothers and sisters in Christ, will next wave a banner saying "This is the Pope's youth".
Among the groups of Augustinians preparing for another week of endless walks on the cobblestones of Lisbon, one burning question asked with passion and joy remains: “after what we have just experienced, what more can there be?"
Well, perhaps the time has come, as the poet pointed out, to exit “with the dishevelled smile of going against the winds [to] chase the melodies of the world, which fly ever higher.”
And so as Augustinian Youth Encounter comes to an end…
… World Youth Day begins.