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Reflections from a riverbank in Portugal

September 22, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Amira Oguntoyinbo

Dear fellow Polar Bears,

There is much joy at the beginning of a new school year, from Lobster Bake and O-Trips to reunions with friends. These fond memories feel so recent—it’s hard for me to believe that I am now closer to my five-year reunion than to my class’s graduation! Yet I know there is also a less joyful side to the return to school: homework, anxiety, interpersonal challenges. As I prepare to start my master’s program here in Madrid (really hoping I’ve retained my Bowdoin study skills), I wanted to share an experience I had this summer that I hope will resonate with you as we all search for joy.

From July 26 to August 6, I was in Portugal. This wasn’t just any trip, though—I shared it with 1.5 million other young people. What event could be that large? World Youth Day (WYD), the event that occurs every 2–4 years and brings together young Catholics from around the world. This year in Lisbon, almost every country was represented. As a young person interested in international relations, this was a beautiful sight to behold. Despite the parade of negative headlines we see every day and fraught relations between countries, this showed me the power of God’s love to create connection.

Here are a few highlights and reflections of the joy we experienced:

1) Seeing the Pope. While not the sole purpose of the event, it was definitely an impactful moment. During the four days he was at the event, there were plenty of opportunities to see him up close, as he passed through and waved at the crowds. It’s hard to describe the joy in the air when he first arrived, as we braved the horrid heat to participate in his opening ceremony. Think of your favorite birthday moment, and perhaps that is close to what we all felt as we waved flags of every nation and sang songs in every language. (I’ll just add that I was wearing a Bowdoin T-shirt that day.)

2) The generosity of Portuguese people. Something you may not know about WYD is that all participants are considered pilgrims. This is because they are making a pilgrimage to the host city, both physically and spiritually, and had to put in significant work to make it happen. Many groups spent the first five days in regions throughout Portugal, getting to know the local churches and communities. We were hosted in the diocese of Braga, a beautiful region in the north from which the classic Portuguese rooster comes. Though communication was often in broken English or Spanish, the generous spirit of each family made us feel right at home. For example, on our first day, one of the families welcomed our group into their home and showed us how to make traditional bread from scratch in a wood-fired oven. Another night, the local town festival invited us to join because they wanted us to be a part of their celebration. Not only that, but the town moms got wind that it was someone’s birthday in our group and baked a giant cake to celebrate! It was these small and big gestures that left a mark on each of us.

3) Prayer. Some of us have experience with it, some think we understand it, some are just learning and some are unsure. Prayer has always been a part of my life, whether in community, as a family or as an individual. To me, WYD provided an opportunity for each pilgrim to reset and grow in prayer, no matter where they were with it before. Each day, we had the opportunity to pray as a community in the structured form of Mass, the Catholic prayer service. If desired, we could also receive the Eucharist, the consecrated bread that Catholics believe to be the sacred Body of Christ. Filled with songs and rising voices, alongside readings and silent reflection, these moments helped center our days with purpose. In the main events of the Pope’s visit, we had other sacred moments of prayer, such as a Stations of the Cross guided meditation and a send-off Mass on the last morning. Praying together with that many other young adults was very powerful.

So, as you start your semester, whether you knew that WYD happened or had never heard of it, I hope you find time to search for joy. I encourage you to seek out one of the religious and spiritual life groups on campus, if that is of interest to you. They might just open a door in your heart that you didn’t realize was waiting to be opened.

From Madrid, go UBears!

Sarah Walker, Class of 2020

Sarah Walker is a member of the Class of 2020.


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