No Longer a Minority: Ethiopian Youths Thrilled with Large Numbers Thronging 2023 WYD

Some of the Ethiopian youth attending the World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Credit: Ms. Yemesrach Assefa

Young Catholics from Ethiopia attending the 2023 World Youth Day (WYD) in Lisbon, Portugal, have expressed the joy of being part of a bigger community of people who share their faith.

At only 1 percent of the estimated 120 million people, Catholics are a small community in Ethiopia. And young Catholics in this African country live with the awareness that they are the minority community, according to Yemesrach Assefa who is leading the Ethiopian team attending the WYD in Lisbon.

Interacting with a multitude of other young Catholics in Portugal is therefore reassuring to the Ethiopians attending the event as they feel that they are part of  a large group of believers, Ms Assefa who serves as the National Youth Coordinator under the commission for Family, Laity and Youth on the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia (CBCE) tells ACI Africa. 

“Being a small number, there is always the feeling that you are under the domination of other religions. But being here and seeing such a large community of people that share our faith is very reassuring,” she says in the Sunday, July 30 interview.

Assefa, who led a group of over 90 young Ethiopians to the WYD, and arrived in Portugal on July 26, has described her experience so far as spiritually transformative.


She recounts her group’s July 28 pilgrimage to Fatima which she describes as a spiritual awakening, saying, “We saw the deep faith of fellow Catholics. We saw their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the way they recited the rosary and their participation in other spiritual activities. And back in our group, we reflected on the pilgrimage and everyone spoke of how they had felt the strong divine presence at Fatima.” 

Ahead of the Lisbon WYD events slated for August 1-6, the group from Ethiopia has engaged in various other activities including village visits and hiking.

“We were at a village that is majorly populated by elderly people. Very few young people. And the elderly people were so thrilled to see our youthfulness. They were so welcoming and we learnt a lot from them,” Assefa says.

The Ethiopian group also traveled with Bishop Roberto Bergamaschi of the Catholic Diocese of Gambella who serves as the Head of the commission on Family, Laity and Youth. The group begins each day spent in Lisbon with the Gospel reflection led by Bishop Roberto.

In the coming days, the group will also have a Eucharistic celebration in the Ethiopian rite. Together with Ethiopians living in other countries, the pilgrims in Lisbon will also celebrate their Amharic culture.

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Assefa recounts the message of Berhaneyesus Demerew Cardinal Souraphiel who, while seeing the pilgrims off, blessed them and urged them to be open to learn new cultures.

“The Cardinal told us to be open to meet other people, to learn their ways of life, to learn another language, and to forge and strengthen our relationships with other people. He also reminded us to pray for the peace in our country when we make the pilgrimage to Fatima,” Assefa says.

This is the first time that Ethiopia is sending a large number of young people to a WYD event. Only seven youths represented the country in the 2019 WYD in Panama.

Assefa, who attended the 2016 WYD in Poland, attributes the large number of young Ethiopians attending this year’s WYD to the creation of a youth office on the CBCE. 

“The national coordinating office for activities of the youths in Ethiopia was only established in 2020. Before then, Dioceses worked independently to send the youth to these global events,” she said, adding that the establishment of the national coordinating body has yielded more engagement among Bishops who ensured that a larger number of young people had registered for the Lisbon event.


With her team, Assefa started planning for the WYD in Lisbon in October last year. The role of the national coordinating office included liaising with Bishops on the young people’s online registration, and helping those registered with their visa applications. The office also gave 43 pilgrims who had financial challenges travel packages.

Assefa who is a member of the African Synod Digital Youth Faith Influencers (ASDYFI), is also excited about meeting members of the group drawn from over 50 countries on the continent. August 4 is the day that the group of young people evangelizing their peers in “digital peripheries will be meeting for the first time.” 

Selected to bear the flag of Ethiopia in welcoming Pope Francis on the WYD in Lisbon, Assefa who received blessings from the Holy Father at the close of a conference she attended in Rome, Italy, last month, cannot hide her excitement. “This is the third time I will be close to Pope Francis and I count myself so fortunate.”

Meanwhile, Assefa has urged her fellow pilgrims to learn from how other young people from across the world are handling the challenges they face.

She expresses optimism that the pilgrims will share their experiences with those left behind, thereby enriching their faith. 

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World Youth Day was instituted by St. John Paul II on 20 December 1985. The first official WYD was celebrated in 1986.

Since its institution, the WYD which is celebrated every three years provides a platform for young people from all over the world to experience the universality of the Catholic Church.