The occasional ambulance siren and the thrumming of a helicopter hovering a few hundred feet above ground were piercing the stillness of a beautiful afternoon in Panama city’s Cinta Costera.
If it weren’t for the tens of thousands of young people present along this three-kilometre stretch lining the city’s Pacific Coast, you would think you were in an abandoned city.
The stillness was incredible.
“Do not be afraid. Be courageous to be a saint in today’s world,” one could hear blazing through the loudspeakers.
“Perhaps, as Church, we have been unable to transmit this with sufficient clarity, because at times we, adults, think that young people don’t want to listen.”
Those were the words of Mons. Jose Ulloa Mendieta, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Panama. His impassioned homily on Tuesday’s opening Mass was a rousing call for every young Catholic listening.
“Do not be afraid. You need to be heard. You need to keep making us adults nervous.”
Stepping Back: Preparing for a Pilgrimage
After having missed Krakow in 2016, a group of friends and myself decided sometime in early 2018 to go to Panama and “just do it.” And so that’s what we did — we bought our flights, paid the registration, and waited for January.
As the months flew by, it was becoming more and more apparent that this really was going to be a pilgrimage. Not that we didn’t know that ahead of time, but the questions we had during preparations made us realize things we otherwise wouldn’t have had if this were a vacation. Are we going to stay at a school gym or with a host family? Do we have a safe place to leave our stuff? Would I have a bed? Would we be able to do some laundry? How about my cameras: should I bring them? Which lenses should I bring? Do I really need them?
With all these little luxuries that I would otherwise take for granted on a normal vacation, I can’t help but see a significant parallel with our own spiritual life.
Aware of the fact that a wheelie luggage for this trip was a no-go (given the amount of walking we’d be doing), I was determined to fit all my clothes and belongings in a hiking pack — a small pack that forced me to reduce all that I’m bringing to not only the essentials, but to just enough quantity for these essentials.
One pair of shoes. Just enough clothes. Bible. Journal. No cameras.
Isn’t this true with our own spiritual life? The lesser the baggage, the better we’re able to focus on the journey. The lesser our attachment to earthly possessions, the greater the freedom we experience.
The warmth of a people
After waiting at Parroquia de Santa Maria for a few hours (together with hundreds of other pilgrims waiting for a ride to their accommodations), Xiomara finally arrived and came to see us. She and her husband, Rolando, together with their children Carlos and Andrea, would become our host family for the remainder of our stay.
The Mejia family was a real blessing. They made a home for those who needed one — mi casa es su casa, they say. But they weren’t the only ones: throughout the week, many of the people you’d meet on the streets would always be up for some conversation, despite us not speaking the same language. Hola! De que pais? My two years of Spanish in university was definitely useful, however horrible. I always asked them to speak slowly, otra vez y mas despacio por favor, so that I could understand them a little better. Then we were fine, or at least it seemed to me. And when we got to a point where we really could no longer understand each other, we would just end the conversation by laughing at ourselves. Ha!
I was struck by how friendly these people were. Late one evening, the manager of a local supermarket let us in their staff room to eat the free dinner we claimed at his store. On another occasion, several Muslim men set up a table outside their Mosque, handing out bottles of agua fria to the pilgrims who just came from the opening Mass not too far away. A big sign on their gate said: Bienvenidos amigos peregrinos (Welcome, pilgrim friends).
And who can forget that dreadful 21-kilometre hike to the vigil site: walking under the searing 35-degree heat for several hours, these friendly people boosted our morale by offering us a ride to our destination. At one point, a woman stopped her vehicle in the middle of the road and offered us a ride to her house nearby, urging us to take a rest and use the bathroom. And she wasn’t the only one!
A few hours and an obvious raccoon tan later, we finally made it to the vigil site: a vast, open field in an outer-city suburb that became the home for tired and exhausted pilgrims that night. It was an incredible experience: when the Holy Father led Adoration, the place was perfectly quiet and still. There we were, a few hundred thousand young people sitting out in the open under the clear night sky, adoring our Eucharistic Lord from a mile away. Later, when it came time for the Benediction, we all sang the Tantum Ergo. It was incredible. Everyone spoke different languages, but we all chanted that ancient hymn in unison — singing the Lord’s praises in the language of Holy Mother Church, which we all knew. It was a beautiful moment that sent chills down my spine: the sense of universality, of Catholicity, was so tangible.
A sense of where we came from
A few days before, we attended a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM or the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite) at a downtown Carmelite parish where Archbishop Alexander Sample was preaching. The Archbishop of Portland, OR has become somewhat famed because of his orthodoxy and fidelity to the teachings of Vatican II on the sacred Liturgy.
“Why are you here today?” asked the Archbishop, addressing a congregation full young people from all over the world. “You never grew up in this liturgical tradition, so why are you drawn to it?”
My experience of WYD has not been without its own share of wishy-washiness in the Liturgy. On two separate Masses — one even celebrated by a Cardinal — people seemed to be more intent on “celebrating” their culture instead of ordering all our attention to Jesus in the Eucharist. At one point right after communion (when everyone was about to kneel and pray), a priest took the mic and asked everyone to stand up and clap our hands to the rhythm of the song his choir was singing. On another occasion, a group went in front right after communion and started dancing to an upbeat, Caribbean-style dance music — the sort of which you’d hear on an Expedia cruise commercial — which was supposed to help everyone “better reflect on the Mass.” Yikes.
Hence, being at a TLM that afternoon was a source of assurance and an experience of the sacred, giving us all a sense of where we came from.
“I think it’s important for young people to see, experience, and participate in the Mass of the Ages…the same form of the Mass that nurtured our grandparents and so many of the saints we venerate today.”
Put out into the deep
Having gone to several conferences before, I never thought that World Youth Day would hang heavy on my heart the moment it’s over. However, this one is different.
Throughout this entire pilgrimage, a message that I kept on getting from the catechesis, homilies, talks, and conversations was do not be afraid. And how appropriate — I was at an event started by a saintly man who never tired of saying the same thing during his pontificate.
“Most of us sinners live our lives in the shallow and spend our lives on the seashore,” said Bishop Barron, speaking about us being too easily amused with insignificant things and staying within our own comfort zones. “But when Christ the Lord steps into your boat and gets in your life, he will bring you to the deep.”
Do not be afraid….He will bring you to the deep.
This whole journey has been a reward in itself. Everything else was just a bonus. Now that I’m going back down to the valley after my mountaintop experience, the real earthly pilgrimage continues.
Written by: Ryan Factura
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Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers