The power of one and a half million young people in silence

Testimony of a participant in WYD 2023

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

At the invitation of AILD (International Association of Luso-Descendants), MCP (Movimento Cumprir Portugal) and Benemerente Casa da Flora, the young Aloísio Gonzaga, who is currently studying at the University of São José, was in Portugal to participate in the World Youth Day. Aloísio belongs to the Bayingyi Portuguese-descendant community in Myanmar and is a living testimony of the particularly difficult time that this community is going through. Subsisting essentially on agriculture and distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Burmese with their obvious Caucasian traits, the Bayingyis have long since forgotten the Portuguese language and surnames. But, they keep alive the practice of Roman Catholicism, which is without a doubt their most distinctive trait.

The reason for and significance of Aloísio’s coming to Portugal was precisely his participation in World Youth Day as a young Catholic, thus responding “to Our Lord’s call” to make known through his testimony “the suffering currently experienced by all Catholics in Myanmar.” Hence, his desire to be able to transmit this appeal by word of mouth to Pope Francis in the meeting he had with young refugees at the rectory of the Catholic University of Portugal on the 3rd of August. Unfortunately, this was not possible. “I would have liked to ask the Holy Father to pray for the Catholic Church in Myanmar, as in some regions of the country, chapels and shrines were set on fire. But even so, people have not lost faith. On the contrary, it has strengthened. There are more and more faithful attending Mass,” he says.

Initially, it was thought that Aloísio was the only young man from Myanmar registered for WYD – “I was still looking for my country’s flag in the crowd…” – but it later turned out that three other Burmese were present, probably Karen refugees, who traveled to Portugal at the invitation of one of the parishes in Porto.

Aloísio felt truly privileged because “the Church of Myanmar lacks the means to be able to send its young people abroad.” This was, therefore, a unique opportunity to share with young people from other countries the current difficulties of the Church in Myanmar, in particular the young people of Myanmar, who suffer most from the current civil war.

As for the impact that Catholicism has on his country, Aloísio is not being falsely modest when he says, “Catholicism is part of the history and development of my country. Myanmar has gone through difficult times in the past and again faces a grim reality, yet the local Church has never abandoned the citizens, regardless of their religion. The Catholic Church is helping everyone and in every way possible.”

“During this World Youth Day, ask Jesus questions and share your secrets with Him, tell Him about the lives of your loved ones, your joys and concerns, and even the problems of your countries and the world” – for Aloísio, this was the most important message left by the Holy Father. This appeal touched him deeply, as it was the need to expose the problems experienced by his community that brought him to Lisbon.

During the event, the young Bayingyi had the opportunity to make friends from different nationalities. And when he introduced himself to them, they immediately asked him about his compatriots, since the overwhelming majority of participants presented themselves in groups. “Unfortunately,” he comments, “I had to tell them that because of the civil war in Myanmar it was not possible to assemble a representative delegation from the country.” When reporting the most recent and tragic events, Aloísio noticed great interest on the part of his interlocutors, and they assured him that from now on they would pray for his country.

Grateful to the young people from Movimento Cumprir Portugal, who accompanied him during the event, Aloísio Gonzaga also highlights the kindness and hospitality of the Lisbon family that hosted him. “A wonderful and very religious family. It was an amazing experience! Before coming, I confess, I was a little scared, but they treated me like a real brother.”

In addition to an intense participation in the World Youth Day, Aloíso had the opportunity to see some tourist and historical points, not only in Lisbon, but also in Cascais and Sintra. It highlights Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. “I had never seen a sea like this. I felt very emotional, especially when I thought that one of my ancestors came from this part of the world. I am very proud of my Portuguese roots,” he confesses.

When he meets his university colleagues again at the start of the new academic year, Aloísio will not hesitate to share with them the most memorable moments he has experienced in the Portuguese capital. He will not forget the ceremony of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament on the night of a vigil with the Holy Father: one and a half million young people from all over the world in total silence. “Unbelievable! Such silence is greatest cry of Faith!” exclaims Aloísio, who will also not forget another of Pope Francis’ advice: “Keep the moment that marks you most in your heart and use it when you feel sad or down.”