PANAMA CITY — A common denominator, aside from the Christian faith, that united pilgrims heading to the opening Mass for World Youth Day 2019 in Panama was that each person, in his or her own way, faced a challenge back home.
Pilgrims from places such as El Salvador, Zimbabwe and the Dominican Republic spoke of increasing violence, political or otherwise, threatening their general populations. Others from places such as Australia and the United States spoke of growing secularism affecting the religious beliefs of their peers.
And yet, almost every one of them wore a smile and most importantly, many expressed the belief that most of the problems had a solution and could be overcome with a belief in a Christ who offers, not riches, nor power, but hope — to help themselves and to help others.
“I want to be ignited to give hope to more people,” said Jesuit Father Ignatius Padya, 34, who was traveling with a pilgrims from Zambia, Mozambique and his country of Zimbabwe in southern Africa to the opening Mass Jan. 22. World Youth Day, the international event organized by the Catholic Church, also welcomed other Christians and people of other religious or no spiritual beliefs.
The theme of the 2019 World Youth Day recalled Mary’s response to God: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” It was the first Marian theme used in the event’s history,
It’s exactly that kind of giving of oneself that attracted Valeria Lopez of Mexico to attend the event in Panama, she said.
“I want to fill myself with that love,” she said, walking fast to listen to Panamanian Archbishop Jose Ulloa Mendieta, who celebrated the opening Mass in Panama City’s Campo Santa Maria la Antigua.
Mary, the archbishop said, “was posed to you as a model of valor, courage, who made herself available to comply with God’s plans, the ones which he had selected for her and whose answer is the motto of this World Youth Day.”
That call still applies today,” he said.
For 24-year-old Matthew French, that call means helping out more in his diocese in Australia’s Central Coast, perhaps in chaplaincy, but also in encouraging a sense of a faith community in a country that faces challenges with secularism.
“Like most Western countries, it’s not great,” he said about the religious scene of Australia, although the 2008 World Youth Day held in his country “galvanized people.”
Likewise, Archbishop Ulloa, in the opening homily, expressed hope that the gathering in Panama this year would offer something similar, a “balm,” he called it, for the problems facing teens, adolescents and young adults in what he called the “existential and geographic peripheries.”
He called particular attention to ethnic youth, indigenous and people of African descent, as well as those who face forced migration that expose them to dangerous situations such as human trafficking, drugs, delinquency and other social ills, he said.
He wanted them to know, he said, that they were important and they were the reason for an enormous effort of human mobilization that allowed their pilgrimage to happen.
But the archbishop also acknowledged the real problems some of them faced. Many of the young Central Americans, he said, come from indigenous communities or are descendants of Africans — significant populations of the continent who live largely excluded and discriminated against, leading to lives of poverty on the margins of society.
It was a message pilgrim Mildred Garcia, of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, understood well because she sees some of that in her peers, she said, and as they experience exclusion, they’re also drawn away from the church and toward delinquency, sometimes looking for escape, she said.
For her, faith is the anchor, she said, and World Youth Day this year was about renewing that faith.
Archbishop Ulloa said it was his hope that the Church’s teachings, the sacraments, the kinship of the upcoming days would bring about an encounter with Jesus Christ for those facing challenges and help them confront certain feelings within, particularly the “anti-values” of a system that offers a false sense of happiness.
“One that leads to experiment desperately with so many things that damage the mind and the spirit, but in the end cannot fill the existential void,” he said.
A saint, he said, “seeks justice, prays, lives and loves the community, is happy, has a sense of humor, always is in the struggle, leaves mediocrity behind, lives the mercy of God and shares it with the neighbor.”
He told them not to be afraid of that kind of sainthood. A saint is not one chosen simply to place a face on a prayer card. A saint goes against the current, he said. And this is what the pilgrimage of World Youth Day is about.
“Don’t be afraid, be courageous to be a saint in today’s world,” he concluded. “You’re not renouncing your youth or happiness.”
Finally, he implored: “Keep making the adults nervous, keep detaching yourselves from the things that tie us down and won’t let us be true Christians.”