VATICAN CITY — As World Youth Day in Panama nears, organizers are prepared to make young people from around the globe feel right at home.
While warm temperatures will greet thousands of young people in Panama, Father Romero Aguilar, WYD general coordinator, told Catholic News Service he hopes that the warmth of hospitality also will make them feel welcome.
“People are opening their homes to house young people. We were surprised by how the people responded to the appeal for housing. We want all the kids to have a place, a space, a home,” Father Aguilar said.
Father Aguilar and Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa of Panama and Panama’s ambassador to the Holy See Miroslava Rosas were among the dignitaries and Church officials briefing journalists Dec. 11 on the upcoming event and their preparations to welcome Pope Francis and the myriad of young men and women expected to attend.
The pope’s visit to Panama Jan. 23-27 will be his 26th trip outside of Italy and his third World Youth Day.
During his visit, the pope will celebrate a penitential liturgy Jan. 25 with young inmates at Las Garzas de Pacora Juvenile Detention Center in Pacora. He will also visit Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano (Good Samaritan Home), a center dedicated to helping people with HIV/AIDS.
The pope’s meetings with young people who are unable to take part in the public WYD activities is a response to the Gospel’s call to clothe the naked, visit the sick and comfort the imprisoned, the WYD organizing committee stated Nov. 20.
Although fewer young people will attend the Panama event compared to past World Youth Days, local Church and government officials were optimistic and said they expected some 200,000 young people to attend.
From the United States, by Dec. 19 more than 10,000 young pilgrims had registered to attend the events in Panama and the number continues to climb, said Paul Jarzembowski, World Youth Day USA coordinator and assistant director of youth and young adult ministries for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Following the pope’s lead in meeting with young people unable to attend the WYD festivities, events are being planned in major cities across the United States to coincide with the gathering in Panama.
Jarzembowski said that U.S. bishops have encouraged local leaders to engage with young people not going to Panama “for some kind of spiritual moment: a celebration, pilgrimage, retreat or simply an informal gathering.”
Archbishop Ulloa told journalists that by early December, 47,000 young pilgrims from 155 countries had registered for the event, while 168,000 others are completing the registration process. An estimated 37,000 volunteers have signed up to assist.
However, for organizers of WYD, preparations to receive young pilgrims to the country is more than just an exercise in hospitality, they said. It’s a means of spreading the Christian message of welcoming those in need.
“I believe that this trip will reverberate in the world, but especially in the area of Central America and it will also shed light not only on the reality that we live, but especially the reality lived by young people: of exclusion, of seeing themselves at times forced to immigrate and look for new paths, as well as the reality of violence,” Archbishop Ulloa told journalists.
He also said that the pope’s presence in Panama will be like a soothing “balm and fresh air for our young people to regain their strength.”