Pope encourages young Catholics to realize the dream

PANAMA CITY — Just before leaving the physical and human warmth of Panama Jan. 27, Pope Francis stopped to thank the thousands of official volunteers, young and old, gathered at the capital city’s Rommel Fernandez Stadium to tell them that they had just participated in an event similar to one that took place early in Christianity.  

In their case, they didn’t just multiply food, he said.

“You could have easily chosen to do other things, but you wanted to be involved, to give your best to making possible the miracle of the multiplication, not only of loaves, but also hope,” he said, telling the volunteers to go out into the world and make that attitude contagious. “We need to multiply that hope.”

Volunteers at Panama’s World Youth Day showed it was possible to renounce one’s interests in favor of others, the pope said.

“You made a commitment,” he said. “Thank you.”

During the closing Mass, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, announced that Lisbon, Portugal, will open its doors to the world’s young people in 2022 for the next World Youth Day.

Upon hearing the location of the next celebration, Portuguese erupted in cheers, waving their country’s flag and chanting “We are the pope’s youth!”

Pope Francis then greeted Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who attended the Mass.

In the early morning hours, pilgrims were awakened by sounds of upbeat music as the hot Panamanian sun rose. Despite the heat, the pilgrims danced and sang along, awaiting Pope Francis’ arrival.

In his homily, Pope Francis encouraged young Catholics to be engaged in the world today to ensure a better tomorrow.

“You, dear young people, are not the future but the now of God. He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents, your elders; to stand up and with them to speak out and realize the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you,” he said.

As thousands of pilgrims streamed through the Panama City neighborhood of Las Acacias en route to the World Day Youth vigil Jan. 26, they felt the solidarity of the Panamanians.

Residents of Las Acacias, which curls around to the venue where the pope joined young people for the Jan. 26 vigil and the Jan. 27 closing Mass, turned out in full force, with banners and water hoses to cool off the pilgrims. Some offered the use of their living rooms, patios and even restrooms for the young Catholics streaming through.

“This is a great blessing to have them here, to have so many of them praying the rosary, singing for us as they go by,” said Elba de Aguero, a resident of Las Acacias.

She showed off a cache of presents some of the pilgrims had dropped off: prayer cards of St. Oscar Romero, stickers from Brazil, a refrigerator magnet from Dubai.

A local mosque provided free water to pilgrims en route to an opening event for the pope, and other religious groups — including Hindus — also pitched in to help.

Elizabeth Kaeufer, 18, of Akureyri, Iceland, said the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland was wonderful, but there was something about the warmth of people in Panama.

She said she loved the shows of expression, the spontaneous dancing and singing in the streets, the feeling that there are no strangers. On Panama City’s metro, Latin American pilgrims broke out in song, with guitars and other instruments, en route to the vigil.

“You feel like you’re a part of something huge,” Kaeufer said, “something, a feeling that’s the same for so many people.”

For U.S. pilgrims Sebastian Martin, 18, and Jessica Martinez, 24, of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that feeling was about something more personal.

“I want to stay true to who I am” as a Christian, said Martin, a college freshman, and that was his reason for attending the event.

For Martinez, a teacher, coming to Panama brought her into contact with a wider world of languages and people with different customs and practices but who share her faith. She said attending World Youth Day was about forming a deeper relationship with God — a unique, hard-to-describe feeling she finds while among her peers.

“I want to grow my faith in God,” she said.

Despite sweltering temperatures, hundreds of thousands of young men and women made their way to St. John Paul II Park for the vigil and Mass. They brought sleeping bags and tents, prepared to spend the night in the field — praying the rosary, making new friends — before celebrating Mass with Pope Francis at 8 a.m. Jan. 27. The pope did not spend the night, but returned later in the evening to the apostolic nunciature.

Arriving in his popemobile for the vigil celebration, Pope Francis made his way through a sea of colorful flags and banners people waved excitedly.

After the pope took his place on the stage, young adults from Panama and the Palestinian territories gave their experiences of finding faith and hope amid doubt, sickness and addiction.

Erika de Bucktron, a 42-year-old mother of four from Panama, spoke of the fear and difficulties she faced when doctors said her pregnancy was at high risk after diagnosing her unborn daughter with Down syndrome.

Throughout her pregnancy, she said, she and her husband abandoned themselves in God’s hands and, after the birth of their daughter, decided “to love her with all our hearts, without making any difference with our other children, who also welcomed her with so much love.”

After listening to many testimonies, Pope Francis addressed the youths, saying that their experiences reflected the risk Mary took to say “yes” to God.

The salvation that God wishes to give his children, he said, isn’t a file in the cloud waiting to be downloaded or the latest app, but rather is an invitation to be “part of a love story interwoven with our personal stories; it is alive and wants to be born in our midst so that we can bear fruit just as we are, wherever we are and with everyone all around us.”

The pope encouraged young people to not be afraid of opening their hearts to Christ and “embrace life with all its frailty and flaws, but also with its grandeur and beauty.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “to tell him that you, too, want to be a part of his love story in this world, that you are ready for something greater.”

CNS reporter Junno Arocho Esteves contributed to this report.