ROME — It’s official: World Youth Day (WYD), the massive youth gathering launched by St. Pope John Paul II, is once again underway.

Thousands of pilgrims have taken over not just Panama but many places around it, including the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and El Salvador, participating in missionary activities in preparation for the big event.

The excitement ramps up even more with the arrival of Pope Francis Wednesday, January 23 to participate in the final four days of WYD.

The archbishop of Panama, Jose Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, defined WYD as an event during which the “eyes of the world will be set on Panama.” He also said that hosting the event is a “dream that is being delivered with a lot of pain, but everything is worth it.”

“This is a moment for the youth,” he said, acknowledging that they’re living challenging intergenerational challenges, but that young people need opportunities to build the world and make things new from their own perspective.

Organizers are estimating some 300,000 pilgrims will arrive in Panama from 155 countries for the Jan. 22-27 event, with more than 12,000 coming from the United States. Some began the pilgrimage months ago, choosing to sail from France or Poland. There are 37,000 volunteers working to prepare the event, which will include more than 400 bishops who will concelebrate with the pope.

Thousands of pilgrims chose to participate in a warmup week known as “Days in the Diocese,” a missionary trip that usually takes pilgrims to various dioceses of the host country. Alas, Panama is too small a nation for such an activity, so neighboring countries opened their doors, including Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Nicaragua was also scheduled to host pilgrims, but an ongoing political crisis led the bishops to call off their participation. The number of young women and men travelling from Nicaragua for the event has also suffered greatly. 

From the diocese of Granada alone, some 10,000 pilgrims had registered to participate and took part in various activities in preparation, but as of late November, only about 1,000 were actually going.

In addition, the January date has complicated attendance for many pilgrims, as WYD usually takes place during the summer break in the Western hemisphere. 

However, the timing was chosen taking into account Panama’s rainy season and also the fact that young Catholics from the south always found the usual August date complicated due to school, but still managed to attend in big numbers.

However, this has not deterred pilgrims from Africa: Thousands are expected, in what could be a record number of attendees for this continent. 

Though the destination of the next WYD is not revealed until the send-off Mass on Sunday, it’s long been rumored that the Vatican is considering holding the summit in the African continent for the first time in the not too distant future.

The budget for the whole event is estimated at $54 million, most of which comes from pilgrim registration fees and donations from sponsors. 

However, the Panamanian government will pay for “infrastructure and logistical support,” and it’s sparing no expense to welcome Pope Francis nor to guarantee the safety of the pilgrims: $14,000 has been spent on a red carpet for the pope to walk on at Tocumen International Airport, while six rescue dogs, trained to help find people in events such as stampedes and earthquakes, were bought for $17,000.

WYD is an itinerant youth festival celebrated every two or three years. The first edition took place in Rome, back in 1986, though two encounters in the Eternal City on Palm Sunday, in 1984 and 1985, are often described as the actual birth of this event, which is often described as the “Catholic Woodstock.”

In 1987, John Paul decided the location would change, and summoned the youth to Francis’ Buenos Aires. Interestingly enough, the Argentine pope had never attended a WYD until he presided over the one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, back in 2013, only months after being elected to the papacy.

The event is divided in three parts: Days in the Dioceses; three days of catechesis, divided by language, and preached by many of the attending bishops; and then four days of events with the pope, including the welcoming ceremony, a Way of the Cross, a vigil on Saturday, and the closing Mass on Sunday.

Also on the pope’s agenda are two visits that reflect his concern for those in the outskirts: the Good Samaritan Home, for people with HIV/AIDS who have no family support and who can’t afford treatment; and a juvenile detention center, with whom he’ll celebrate a penitential liturgy. Some 150 inmates will participate in the encounter.

In addition, inmates from various prisons in Panama, wanting to participate in the event, have created the staff he will use at Sunday’s Mass as well as the 250 confessionals that will be available throughout the week in the Youth Park. A group of female inmates spent months producing rosaries that will be distributed among the young people. 

While WYD is known for bringing together young Catholics from around the globe, later this month it will also prove to be an interreligious affair when a local Jewish synagogue in Panama plays host to Catholic pilgrims during what is widely considered to be the Church’s most important event for young people.

Kol Shearith Israel synagogue, located in the city’s Costa del Este neighborhood close to the Pacific Ocean, volunteered to open its doors when it heard shelter was still needed for the more than 400,000 young people registered to descend on Panama beginning Jan. 22 — a number that is expected to swell to well over a half million by the week’s end.

Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik, who leads Kol Shearith, told Crux that since the synagogue has a long history of working with the city’s Catholic population — including regular joint choir concerts with the neighborhood Catholic parish — it only made sense to offer its space.

Inés San Martín is the Rome bureau chief for Crux.

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