As the sun rose above a field filled with tents and sleeping bags on the outskirts of Panama City, thousands of young pilgrims from 155 countries woke up ready to praise God at World Youth Day. They had been inspired with reminders of Christ’s love and encouraged to share this with others for days and, that Sunday, St. Peter’s successor had one more message.
“You, dear young people, are not the future, but the now of God,” Pope Francis told a crowd of about 700,000 during World Youth Day’s closing Mass.
“The pope invited us to be disciples and to go out in mission—to not only say that we are Catholic, but to go forth,” said Marcela Salguero, from El Salvador.
During the encounter of the Universal Church from January 22 through 27, youth and young adults were called to reflect on Mary’s affirmation of God’s will in Luke 1:38: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Having this “yes” as the theme for the gathering encouraged pilgrims to discern their own calling.
This made an impression on Iliana Shanta, a pilgrim who came to Panama with members of her parish, Cristo Salvador, in El Salvador. “World Youth Day (WYD) calls me to be humble and see the needs of others as a way to be part of God’s mercy,” she said.
Salvadoran pilgrim Nestor Recinos said he and his girlfriend felt called to serve God in ministry and in married life. “God has been helping me to understand what he wants from me,” he said. “I believe he wants me to motivate others to get close to God and to support each other in the joy of the Spirit.”
Main events included meetings with the pope, youth Stations of the Cross, an overnight vigil and the Sunday Mass, but young people also participated in catecheses, concerts, reconciliation and prayer—as well as the chance to meet other Catholics and experience different cultures.
“(Pope Francis) invites us to love as Jesus loved us and to be one, even with our differences,” said Jose Armando Toledo, a pilgrim from Guatemala attending World Youth Day for the first time.
Mayra Torresias and Jesus Ledesma, members of the Baker Diocese in Oregon, who had joined the 30-person delegation from the Archdiocese of Portland, said they were happy to share the excitement and zeal of their brothers and sisters in Christ at WYD. “It was impressive to see how they love God,” Torresias said. “This makes me want to follow his Word even more.”
Anna Johnson, Maryknoll’s young adult outreach coordinator, also traveled with the Portland pilgrims and was energized by the joy, unity and faith of the youth. Like many young adults at WYD, she was touched by the Stations of the Cross, which focused on issues young people face today, such as violence against women, poverty and the plight of refugees.
“It was a really holy and Spirit-filled experience for me as we walked through the different Stations and each was connected to a particular place in the Americas,” she said.
Young people’s faith encouraged others to persevere regardless of the challenges facing them back in their countries.
Generosity and friendship abounded while the young people were in Panama, where temperatures and crowds reminded youth that this was a pilgrimage, not a vacation. “Walking in direct sunlight at near 100-degree weather, we were challenged as Catholics, as humans, as missionaries,” said Chicago youth leader Alberto Rodriguez, when sharing a short film he created after the pilgrimage. “At the same time, it also strengthened our faith, our character, our mental toughness. At the end, we all left with a heart full of blessings.”
The spirit of solidarity and fraternity was heartfelt during the week. “It was a beautiful experience to be in community with the pilgrims and to open the doors of our homes to them. Because, like I said to my neighbors, when you receive a pilgrim, you are opening your doors to Jesus,” said Juana Delgado, a resident of Las Mañanitas, Panama, one of the areas where the Maryknoll Sisters have served for decades (To read more about the Maryknoll Sisters’ presence in World Youth Day, click here). Delgado helped connect pilgrims with host families and welcome centers before and during WYD. She said her family, including her son, who was one of 20,000 volunteers during the event, was transformed by World Youth Day.
Andrea Giuricih, one of 80 pilgrims who came from the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, South Africa, described the vibrant pilgrimage as “one of the best experiences of my life.” Giuricih’s group had been dancing with one of the many groups of Panamanian youth singing praise songs.
This was the first time that this massive gathering of Catholic youth was held in Central America—which allowed for greater participation of pilgrims from the region. “Yesterday we were able to see the pope and I felt at peace,” said Dinorah Flores, a parishioner of Cristo Salvador parish, where Maryknoll Fathers John Spain and John Northrop bring pastoral assistance.
Sofia Cruz, a fellow parishioner who also was part of the team in charge of bringing 500 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of San Salvador, said that coming up with the means to travel was challenging. She explained that many young people sold different items and collected donations for more than a year to pay for the pilgrimage. “To know that they reached their goal to have come to WYD is beautiful. … It was a blessing to represent our country here in Panama, and to bring (the example of) Saint (Oscar) Romero with us.”
The pilgrimage inspired young people to reach out to those on the peripheries, said Jorge Rivera, a Maryknoll mission educator who accompanied a group of 14 pilgrims from the Pastoral Juvenil of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He saw one of the young adults quietly buy food for a homeless woman while the group ate lunch. “He brought the food to the person and stayed with her to chat,” Rivera said. “This is what Church is all about.”
Chicago young adult Carolina Perez said she was happy to hear about the experiences of indigenous people and people of African descent at the opening Mass presided by Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa of Panama. “(It is) highlighting people who are normally in the peripheries, and that gave me hope for a more just Church,” she said. “It really calls us to be an ‘iglesia en salida,’ a Church that goes out.”
During a catechesis, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland told pilgrims that “God from all eternity has had a plan for your life.”
“Your job is to discover what that is and to ask God’s help to discover (it),” he continued, telling young people to ask for Mary’s intercession to discover God’s will and have the fortitude to say yes. “We discern it in prayer, but it has to start out this way: you have to truly desire to do the will of God in your life.”
Adrian Meza said these words gave him courage to consider his vocational call. “I always struggle with the fear of ‘what if?’ ” Meza said. “(But) I want to be as open as I can to the Lord.”
At the vigil, Pope Francis continued hearing testimonies from young people and encouraged pilgrims to be open to God’s graces in their lives. The vigil with the pope concluded with 600,000 participants falling to their knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Afterward, some continued praying through the night, others returned to their homes or host families, and others slept on the field, renamed John Paul II Field for World Youth Day.
The next morning, Pope Francis told Mass-goers that serving God and his mission is a life-long pursuit and asked them to “keep saying ‘yes’ to the dream that God has sown in you.”
Several young people are doing this back home, by affirming their vocations, sharing their testimonies or starting new projects to animate others to find their purpose and meaning. “Our mission is to evangelize other young people, to get to know Jesus in those around you,” Sofia Cruz said. “(At World Youth Day), I discovered that I want to dedicate my life to serve Jesus.”
Featured Image: Pilgrims holding flags from the United States, Malaysia and Ecuador befriended each other before participating in “Fiat,” a U.S.-sponsored World Youth Day event in Panama City. (M. Chin/Panama)
To see Maryknoll Magazine’s coverage of World Youth Day Panama, go to our website. For more photos, go to WYD 2019 Gallery.
To read the messages given by Pope Francis During World Youth Day, go to the Vatican website.