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Pilgrims from Liberia overcome travel troubles to attend WYD: ‘Being here is a miracle’

James Nyumah, 23, from Liberia, (pictured third from left) hangs out with new friends from Australia while attending a “Rise Up” session at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 2, 2023. / Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

Lisbon, Portugal, Aug 2, 2023 / 08:10 am (CNA).

They made it “by the grace of God,” 36-year-old Father Ernest Wisner said about the presence of his small group from Liberia at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.

The group of 10 — eight young adults and two priests — had to travel through four countries before arriving in Lisbon on the morning of Aug. 1, the first day of the international gathering that has welcomed hundreds of thousands of young people from 146 of the world’s countries.

Wisner told CNA being at WYD feels like “a miracle” after the group had to travel to another West African country to apply for and receive the visas that allowed them to enter Portugal.

The 36-year-old, who has been a priest for three years, explained that because there is no Portuguese embassy in Liberia, they had to drive more than 10 hours from the capital city Monrovia and across all of neighboring Sierra Leone to arrive in the capital of Guinea, where they boarded a plane to Dakar, Senegal.

Father Ernest Wisner, 36, a priest of the Archdiocese of Monrovia, Liberia, joined another priest and eight young people on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

After a two-week wait in Senegal, the pilgrims had their visas and could finally fly to Lisbon via Madrid, Spain.

Wisner remembers thinking: “If it’s going to be this stressful, why don’t we have our own [youth event] and invite the pope.”

The group from Liberia spoke to CNA at one of WYD’s “Rise Up” sessions in a northern neighborhood of Lisbon on the morning of Aug. 2. They joined other English-speaking Catholics from countries including the Netherlands, Australia, Poland, Ireland, and the Philippines.

Father Johnny-Clement Kombo, the Liberian group’s leader, called the intense and difficult travels “tedious” but added that whenever they felt like giving up and going back home, “God entered the picture.”

He said it was like “God sat in the backseat,” watching to see if they could respond to the challenges with faith.

From Day One of the trip, it was a true pilgrimage, the vocations director and youth office leader emphasized.

James Nyumah, 23, also spoke about the dramatic journey they undertook to arrive at the Catholic youth event, which Pope Francis will also take part in beginning Aug. 3.

He and Kombo said one of the members of their group also lost her passport during the trip and had to be issued an emergency replacement.

“Like our Blessed Mother, she ‘went in haste’” to resolve the issue, Kombo said, referring to the WYD 2023 theme: “Mary rose up and went with haste.”

Three pilgrims from Liberia, including Father Johnny-Clement Kombo (pictured far right), join other young Catholics in singing praise and worship music during a “Rise Up” session of World Youth Day 2023 in a Catholic church in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

The priest said he can already see how the young people in his group, many of whom have never before traveled outside Liberia, are being renewed and strengthened in their faith.

When first approached by Bishop Anthony Fallah Borwah, president of the Liberian bishops’ conference, Kombo said he was reluctant to lead a pilgrimage to World Youth Day, citing the high cost and long distance.

Flights from Dakar, Senegal, to Lisbon, Portugal, cost the group more than $1,000 per person.

But after a few months of mulling it over, he explained, the local Church brought its financial and spiritual resources together to make it happen. The group also received financial assistance from Liberian families and the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life.

Now in Portugal, and enjoying meeting other young Catholics from around the world, the group is “all strong and trusting in God,” Kombo said. “He will be with us at the end.”

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