World Youth Day Panama 2019 Review

Alex shares his experience of World Youth Day 2019 in Panama.

WORLD YOUTH DAY was a powerful experience. It was so blessed in every way and I appreciate all the work that went into organising the trip. I previously attended World Youth Day in Krakow with the Diocese of Westminster, and I got so much joy out of that that it made me want to attend the next one!

Before I left for the trip, I was enthusiastic about visiting Central America for the first time and discovering the richness of Panama.

It was such a wonderful adventure, meeting Central Americans and experiencing a different culture; it was so welcoming and the weather was brilliant – about 25-30 degrees.

I went with a group of 25 from the diocese – Fr Mark and Fr Chinedu were leading the pilgrimage, including morning prayers/hotel Masses and were there to support us. Bishop Nicholas Hudson (Auxiliary Bishop for Westminster) joined us for the pilgrimage in Panama. Over the 11 days in Central America, I bonded well with the group – having not known them before – and we have become like family now.

We flew from Gatwick to Juan Santamaria Airport, in Costa Rica, and stayed one night in the Aurora Holiday Inn, San José. Furthermore, we spent a day in Costa Rica, and took a second flight to Albrook Airport in Panama City. We stayed at the Rianda Granada hotel for nine nights, both before, during and after the World Youth Day week.

The early starts were worth it. Breakfast was provided at the hotel every morning (average time 6:30-7am!) and usually we went out within 30 minutes! The amount of Pineapple/Papaya and Croissants we ate was vast. We also had food vouchers which provided Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner, for World Youth Day week – with a variety of options.

We had several day-trip visits – namely POAS Volcano/La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Miraflores Locks/Panama Canal, Old Quarter, Portobello Beach, Grecia, Sarchi & Oxcart Factory both in Costa Rica and Panama. There were gift shops/restaurants where we could buy gifts and try delicacies. We had lunch booked for the sight-seeing/tour days and tried the local Costa Rican & Panamanian cuisine, which was delicious! I’ve never had plantain in my life before now – I recommend trying it. We also had the chance to take photos and acclimatise – it was unreal.

Our hotel in Panama City was magnificent and there were other dioceses from the UK staying there (Southwark/Brentwood/Middlesbrough). It was very well located with many shops/metro stations within walking distance. The bus stops were frequent and a metro card for each person to use on public transport.

The World Youth Day week was phenomenal; the atmosphere in Panama City was electric and all the pilgrims from different groups were very joyful and roaring with excitement to see Pope Francis. We went as one group to the events, but sometimes lost each other! World Youth Day was very important to Panama (Central America’s first one) and there was an energising feeling towards it. The cars/buses/motorcycles on the roads would beep along the way, all for good intentions! Their welcoming presence was second-to-none. I have never laughed and been so happy in a week for a long time. Even on the way to The Catechesis/Figali Convention Centre, we would stop and converse with other pilgrims from worldwide. I got to practice my Spanish, especially whilst ordering food in the queue at Rey’s Supermarket and Dunkin’ Donuts!

On the first day of World Youth Day week, we received our packs, containing our Metro tickets, World Youth Day stash, JMJ bags/t-shirts etc. We headed to Santa Maria La Antigua Field for the opening World Youth Day Mass – our group gathered in section A2. Everyone got there early and the atmosphere was enlightening. The view of Panama City was one of the best I have ever seen, and it was a whopping 32 degrees, so on came the sun cream + plenty of water! The Holy Father arrived and everyone welcomed him with an open heart.

The Catechesis and Mass took place over the next three days. We were in a section with the English-Speaking Bishops (Australia/US/Canada/UK countries mainly). There were various talks from bishops every day, and a Mass to follow. Some of the words that were spoken were very inspiring and we even had a discussion on Our Stage of Faith at the present moment. It took place from 9-12am every morning; it seemed that every time the Masses started at 11, the sun shone over the site – must have been God-given!

Throughout the Catechesis days, there was a Youth Festival being held in the city, and then various evening events, such as Adoration/Worship (Figali Convention Centre), Papal Welcome (Santa Maria La Antigua), Stations of the Cross (St Maria La Antigua), Omar Recreational Park (Forgiveness Park).

The following day, we headed to San Juan Pablo II field, walking for one hour and the rest by bus. This was where the Vigil and Final Mass was held. It was swelteringly hot that day. There was a main stage where all the dance displays/singing/Mass took place. The dance displays and ‘Panamian’ Spanish music were wonderful – our group got to the front so we could appear on the screen. There was something very special about this day – the joy and happiness on people’s faces; I felt very privileged to be a part of World Youth Day. During the day, I encountered so many people from over the world and exchanged wristbands/Walsingham prayer medals from our diocese, and many photo opportunities.

The World Youth Day theme anthem was based on the Annunciation – with Mary, the Mother of God, mentioned as a perfect example to follow. Mary’s simple “Yes” to following Jesus was life-changing and we are encouraged to do the same. The message was: “Here I am, the Servant of the Lord. May it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This song was sung in Spanish at times throughout World Youth Day – we got so attached to it, we had to join in: “He Aqui, Le Sierva De Señor, Hágase En Mí Según Tu Palabra” (Spanish Translation). The remixed one was very catchy indeed. On the evening of the Vigil, there was also a Rosary, which took place late at night, and very soothing to send you off to sleep.

The subsequent morning, we were woken up by the main stage, at 5:55am! They played a song, which repeatedly said: ”Oh… Oh oh… Señor” (getting us in the spirit). It stuck in my head for the next few days! It was very hot at the Final Mass, starting at 8am. I had to quickly find some shade to avoid the heat. We slept in sleeping bags over night and were provided with snacks from Rey’s supermarket. After all, in the heat, our appetite went, so it was ideal.

Overall, World Youth Day in Panama was a life-changing experience; it has inspired me to do greater things and make a difference. It allowed me to be free from worries and stress in everyday life and discern my calling in life. When we heard the announcement that Portugal would hold the next World Youth Day, this was great news. In the airport on the return flight back, a contingent of Portuguese young people were dancing/singing in delight and we celebrated with them! I would be glad to be in Lisbon for the next one!

Highlights/moments from Panama

  • Everyone being there for each other – in all the struggles/chaos/joy
  • Queuing for the toilets in the shopping centres (unusual for a men’s toilet!)
  • Singing songs/having fun on the Metro buses with other pilgrims
  • Losing everyone on Thursday night, then being found (i.e. Parable of The Lost Son) – had a lift from two other pilgrims in their car and visited Omar Park (great experience)
  • The Panamanian (and Costa Rican) cuisine at various cafes/restaurants, and speaking in español to order food!
  • The day trips to POAS Volcano, La Paz Waterfall Gardens & Rainforest, Portobello Beach, Grecia, Miraflores Locks/Panama Canal, Oxcart Factory
  • Exchanging wristbands/Walsingham Prayer Medals with young people from other countries
  • Standing in the toilet queue for two hours and listening to Mass!
  • Meeting people in queues and sharing faith stories
  • Having trouble finding postcard stamps in Panama, then finally the relief of buying stamps in Costa Rica on the final day 😊
  • The Pope’s address at Santa Maria La Antigua on the Panama City coast
  • The World Youth Day theme song, sung in Spanish!
  • Practicing Spanish with room-mate
  • Saying Mass in Rianda Granada Hotel on our room floor
  • Portuguese people celebrating the next WYD (Portugal) at Juan Santamaria Airport
  • Taking a dip in the pool and teaching fellow pilgrims how to swim
  • Using Food Vouchers in Rey’s supermarket and taking photos by the Panama football shirt
  • Shouting continuously: “Esta es la Juventud del Papa” – “This is the Youth of the Pope”
  • The evening at Figali Convention Centre – both the addresses from speakers, Adoration and Worship at the end
  • Taking a trip to El Trapiche after Istmo restaurant only provided us with snacks!
  • Being reminded on the coach that it was morning prayer (forgot my book on several occasions!)
  • The metro buses making beeps, as we walked past. All for good intentions (not to edge past us!)
  • The Pope’s homily and Mass – very inspirational, more people would benefit from hearing it, not to be self-centred, but Christ-centred 😊
  • Trying snorkelling for the first time at Portobello Beach
  • The chaos in supermarkets/crowds/long queues – it just made me smile and laugh!
  • Songs sung at the Catechesis and Masses: Lion of Judah, You’re a Good Good Father, This is Amazing Grace, Bless The Lord My Soul, Because He Lives, Lord I Need You, O Come To The Altar

What I learnt from World Youth Day

  • Cultural experience of Latin America (Panama/Costa Rica), as well as religious
  • That we can all be united as one body, in Christ – and not divided
  • We should aim to build bridges, not walls
  • That faith is important to keep you focussed and grounded
  • Catholics should not have a “Meanwhile” approach to life, but build the Kingdom now [Pope Francis]
  • Young people should live in the present, not wait till the future [Pope Francis]
  • Faith is challenging. To say “Here I am” is the highest praise we can offer to God. Do whatever he tells you. Saying “Yes” to the Lord, God can be distant at times (Message from the English-Speaking Bishop at Catechesis)
  • No one can love you like God. Each moment is a fresh moment of ‘Fiat’ (as Mary experienced). We can be overwhelmed with fear or cast out our fears (Message from Sister Bethany Madonna S.V at Figali Centre)