A warm wind caresses her golden hair. Anna, 29, feels Pope Francis’ welcome speech like a breath of fresh air. The Muscovite scans the huge crowd around her: “I am touched to live this universal Church”, she slips. This Thursday, August 3, 500,000 pilgrims are massing in Eduardo VII Park.
The Russian delegation seems derisory with its sixteen participants – including expatriates from Kazakhstan, Senegal, Colombia and Bolivia. In the streets of Madrid, in 2011, they were more than 2000. But, since then, the war has interfered in the daily life of the population. Young men of fighting age – those who could go to WYD – must be ready to go to the front in the event of mobilization, if they are not already there. Inflation prevents the rest of the faithful from considering any trip.
During the address of the Holy Father, two French people call out to the believer wrapped in a Russian flag: “Are you from over there?”. Anna nods. The young people let out a cry of joy. In competition with other tricolor pilgrims to collect the most signatures of different nationalities, they were not sure of being able to find representatives of the Russian delegation. That day, selfies and signing sessions follow one another with young people from Slovakia or across the Atlantic.
“Moscow is so cool!” a New Yorker told Iana, 30, who had just signed her first name. The 30-year-old, employed in tourism, thinks back to the Portuguese couple from the diocese of Leira, who hosted her last week, a two-hour drive from Lisbon. “This family wanted to welcome Russians. They made a distinction between politics and the people,” explains the young woman. Lana introduced her guests to a traditional dance from her country, while they introduced her to Portuguese culture. She explained to them that in her native country, Catholics only represented a tiny minority: barely 1% of the faithful out of a population of 146 million. A Catholic religion that has been all the more isolated from the rest of the world since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022.
At WYD, however, the conflict that is tearing the European continent apart seems far away. Anna stays on the lookout for the slightest flag in sky blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine. “I don’t know how they can react,” said the young Russian, speaking of the 300 or so Ukrainians present in Lisbon. The two peoples avoid each other, but the Russian delegation does not escape criticism. “We perceive anger on the faces of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, where is God in this war?”, launches an American priest to Oksana, the group’s accompanist. The 30-year-old is taking a long break. Then responds, weighing every word: “It’s a disaster for both our nations, but in a conflict, God can grow in everyone’s heart…”. The arrests are sometimes more hostile. “How dare you take to the streets with your flag?” 21-year-old Kristina once heard. The remark hurt the youngest of the group, sunglasses resting on her aquiline nose. “We are Christians, we want peace with everyone,” she sighs. She won’t go any further. For a year and a half, the citizens of his country risk up to a year and a half in prison if they criticize the war.
The face of the Holy Father appears on the large screen deployed in the open air. That very morning, François met fifteen Ukrainians. “No pope has come to Russia!” remarked one of the Russian-speaking participants, without further comment.
The pontiff, however, has a strong word for the small delegation. “The Lord does not point, but stretches out his arms…” Oksana is touched. “His message is concrete: we are all part of the Church, despite the difficulties,” she rejoices, in a vibrant voice. The day before he left, his grandmother had advised him against leaving. “Don’t go, everyone hates Russians!”, gritted the old lady, who follows the news on state news channels. Oksana followed her momentum. “With these WYDs, we can be the symbol of fraternity”, she says. It is this message that she will bring, on her return, to Russian Catholics who have remained far from WYD.