Ahead of next year’s international celebration of World Youth Day – a global gathering that draws thousands of young people together for talks, fellowship, and face time with the pope – a top Vatican official has praised the creativity of youth and said they ought to be protagonists not only in the event itself, but also the organizational process.

Speaking to delegates attending a preparatory meeting in Fatima, American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s office for Laity, Family and Life, said that the delegates are all members of “a universal church that is on a journey.”

“Pope Francis wants this type of synodal church,” and has spoken of “a synodal youth ministry that is a ‘wonderful polyhedron,’” Farrell said, adding that in this process, “young people themselves are the protagonists of change.”

“For this reason, I encourage all of you, in preparing for World Youth Day in your countries and in your movements, to let young people themselves be the protagonists,” he said, saying youth have many “great creative ideas” about how to organize pilgrimages for World Youth Day.

Instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II as a way to reach out to young people and engage them in church life, World Youth Day (WYD) was established in 1985, with the first international gathering taking place in Rome in 1986.

With the institution of WYD, John Paul II invited bishops to celebrate the event annually in their dioceses every Palm Sunday, and to send youth to the international gatherings, which are held every two to three years in different locations around the world.

Pope Francis, who attended the last WYD in Panama in 2019, in 2021 changed the date of the diocesan WYD celebrations to the feast of Christ the King, rather than Palm Sunday.

Originally planned for 2022 but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the next youth day gathering will be held in Lisbon from Aug. 1-6, 2023. The week prior, from July 24-31, young people are invited to “Days in the Dioceses” throughout the dioceses and archdioceses of Portugal.

Lisbon is a stone’s throw from the famed Marian shrine in Fatima, where the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children on the 13th of every month between May and October in 1917. Pope Francis visited Fatima May 12-13, 2017, for the centenary celebration of the apparitions, declaring two of the shepherd children, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, saints.

Over the years, WYD got the nickname “Catholic Woodstock” due to the massive crowds of young people high on the Holy Spirit that turn out for the global gatherings.

Around 300 delegates from 100 countries belonging to bishops’ conferences and various Catholic movements and associations attended the Oct. 17-19 preparatory meeting for next year’s international event, marking the first time they had met in person since the 2019 gathering in Panama, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event is being organized by the Local Organizing Committee of the XXXVII WYD in Lisbon in collaboration with the youth desk of the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.

In his opening remarks at the preparatory meeting, Farrell referred to the diversity of delegates in attendance, calling it an act of “building bridges between entire cultures and nations.”

“This is what World Youth Days have represented from their inception. This message is never old and today it is very necessary,” he said.

Including young people in the organizing process for WYD is not only necessary, he said, but it is also a sign of the “synodality” Pope Francis often speaks of, loosely meaning a process of broad consultation ensuring that everyone’s perspectives are heard and considered when decisions have to be made.

“The principal of synodality also has direct relevance for our gathering here in Fatima,” Farrell said, telling delegates that while the main organizing committee offered presentations on the process and its status, “building bridges between entire cultures and nations.”

“This would not be a synodal church. We are all co-organizers of the next World Youth Day! We are all co-responsible,” he said, urging attendees to “do everything possible to support the hosts of Lisbon and their efforts.”

As the largest youth event in the world, WYD requires extraordinary organizational and logistical efforts, but the impact of the gathering is felt at another level, Farrell said, pointing to the many young people who first felt a call to the consecrated or priestly life or who met future spouses at a WYD event.

“They are the movements that come from Christ. His love moves youth like it moved Mary to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth,” he said, urging delegates to form “a strong community of prayer in this special place” of Fatima.

“Let us be open in these days to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Let us trust him to move us. Let us entrust all our preparations to him,” he said, asking that the next WYD would be “an open space where young people can encounter Christ and find in him their life’s vocation” and “a new beginning” for society as a whole.