World Youth Day in Panama: ‘It was amazing,’ participants say

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

World Youth Day in Panama: ‘It was amazing,’ participants say

When hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Panama City, Panama, on Jan. 27, 45 young people from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Chicago’s southeast side were among them.
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
People pray as Pope Francis leads the World Youth Day vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Panama City, Panama, on Jan. 27, 45 young people from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Chicago’s southeast side were among them.

The Mass celebrated by Pope Francis was the culmination of a period of learning about God, the earth and themselves, said Claretian Father Hector Navalo, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Navalo led the group on what was also his first pilgrimage to a World Youth Day gathering.

About 113,000 people officially registered for World Youth Day activities, but the park where the closing Mass was celebrated was reported to be at or near its capacity of 700,000.

“It was amazing,” Navalo said. “Some things were difficult, but nothing compared to the experience we lived together with people from different parts of the world, working together, praying together, singing together. It was a rich experience for all of us.”

The 45 young men and women, high school and college age, were hosted by local families, many of whom did not have the same resources that the pilgrims are used to.

“Some rooms didn’t have beds, for example,” said Eloy Escamilla, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s director of religious education. “Or four or five guys would have to share a bathroom. Some of them didn’t have hot water.”

Seeing that there were different ways of living — and that people could be happy living without some of the luxuries the young people take for granted — was life-changing, Escamilla said.

“Now we are realizing that we need to appreciate different things,” he said. “Just the location was part of the experience. It was very hot, and the food was different.”

The group took their meals in the same place every day, Navalo said, and each of them used the same dishes and cutlery the whole time.

“We didn’t have to do anything but wash them,” he said. “But we were not making a lot of trash.”

The group worked for about 16 months to get ready for their two-week pilgrimage, said Escamilla.

“We had to do many different events to raise money,” he said.

They also held a series of meetings to help the young people prepare for the different spiritual experiences, including prayer services, catechetical sessions and service.

They met in Panama with groups from Claretian parishes around the world before World Youth Day officially began on Jan. 22, Escamilla said.

“We had some different meetings so they would understand a little about the Claretian charism,” Escamilla said.

Other religious communities often do the same things around World Youth Day, taking advantage of the scheduled encounter to hold their own gatherings.

Navalo said the best thing for him was seeing the young people from his parish embrace the experience.

“They had the opportunity to see that we can live differently and we will be happy, especially when we take advantage of the gifts God gives to us,” he said.

The group is now looking for ways they can share their experiences with its community in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

But they are also looking ahead to the next World Youth Day.

“Portugal in 2022 looks pretty good,” Escamilla said.

Cardinal Cupich also attended World Youth Day and lead a catechetical session with young people.

To open up a conversation about what Mary’s answer to God can teach the young, Cardinal Cupich reached back into the life of his grandmother, an immigrant who carried a profound pain from a father who sent her away to another country with the parting words: “You’re no good to me.”

Life can produce moments of great pain, moments that can paralyze us with fear, Cardinal Cupich told English-speaking World Youth Day pilgrims Jan. 25 during a catechetical session at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish in Panama City.

During World Youth Day, cardinals, bishops and others participate in sessions that allow for teaching and sharing and give pilgrims a change to ask questions. Though the events can take many forms, the young pilgrims present for the cardinal’s session sat in the room of the small church and listened intently in the pews to hear his family story, which was mixed in with the account of Mary’s acceptance.

Mary, as an unmarried girl, probably faced great fear when presented with the possibility of being the mother of Jesus and yet she accepted, Cardinal Cupich said.

But fear and pain cannot stop people if they trust in a God who promises to look out for them, he said. For his grandmother, being sent away in a painful manner did not stop her from creating a life, one that led to children and even grandchildren — including one who became a cardinal in the U.S.

Sometimes, one of the pilgrims told the cardinal, there are people who find it hard to believe in God’s love; what happens then?

“Make sure you don’t give up on God’s grace,” Cardinal Cupich responded, adding that whether it’s pain, or whether it’s a great honor, such as becoming the mother of God, a person has to get outside of him or herself and focus on a life of serving others.

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Contributing to this story was Catholic News Service


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