Vatican City, Jun 10, 2017 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- World Youth Day wasn't the only topic on the agenda for Panama's bishops during their meeting with Pope Francis this week: they also touched on the role of the laity and the dangers of gender ideology — both key topics for the universal Church.

Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta of Panama, president of the Panama bishops conference, told journalists June 8 that gender ideology “is really being pushed in Panama,” and was a major talking point in their meeting with Pope Francis. The bishops are concluding a trip to Rome for their ad limina visit, during which they met with several Vatican departments and had a nearly 2-hour discussion with Pope Francis June 8. Archbishop Ulloa described the meeting as “marvelous, a brotherly visit,” in which they exchanged jokes, asked questions, and voiced concerns freely.

The international WYD encounter set to take place in Panama in 2019 was of course a big topic, as well as the youth in general. However, particular concern was raised about the growing threat gender ideology poses to youth and to families.

“Let's say something that in other media doesn't sell so well: gender ideology is demonic,” Archbishop Ulloa said. “It wants to break with the reality of the family and it does so by getting in so softly that we don't realize it.” It is never permissible to impose an ideology, he said, stressing the need to respect others, “but having very clear the importance of the family according to the plan of God: man and woman.”

In comments to CNA, Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuan of David said Pope Francis “is very worried about Latin America” and listened carefully to what the bishops had to say. “We listened to his concerns, he listened to our concerns, and from there we had a very fraternal dialogue, very nice, very friendly,” the cardinal said, explaining that the Pope allowed them to share and ask questions, and he responded by giving his own ideas and opinions.

Cardinal Lacunza said that right now in Panama, “there is a real escalation in the media and in the environment to impose, even in the educational field, this theme of gender ideology (on) young children.” He said there is currently “a fight” between those who are pushing gender ideology as a human right and those who, from the perspectives of faith and reason, “say that it is in no way a human right.”

“The homosexuals have a right to be respected in their dignity and not to be discriminated against,” the cardinal said, emphasizing the need to go from “a society that has to assume as good or acceptable this opinion,” to one that teaches children “that there is a very big path that we are not willing to take, we are not willing to compromise.”

When asked what the Church can do to help, Cardinal Lacunza said it is essential to remember that “the Church” includes the laity — not just clerics. As bishops, “we can't do anything,” he said. “We can give orientations, guidelines, but the ones who have to take the baton in their hands are the laity.”

It is the laity who must “fight for adequate legislation in education and other areas,” he said, and, pointing to a recent initiative in the country, said the push to have “an encyclopedia of genitalia” as if it were the most important educational text “is the wrong path.” There are already lay people working in this area, the cardinal said, adding that “this is what we want: that they are the ones with the baton.”

Youth and laity were also key topics in the meeting with Pope Francis, stemming from discussion on World Youth Day. Francis has often condemned a clericalist attitude prevalent in Latin America, calling it in a 2016 letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America  “one of the greatest distortions of the Church” in the region. So it's not surprising that the role of the laity came up with the Panamanian bishops.

In fact, Archbishop Ulloa said the Pope stressed “the importance of believing in the laity,” because the laity “are also capable of transforming our society.” This also includes the youth, the archbishop said, explaining that Pope Francis also focused on the “spaces and opportunities” that must be provided to the youth.

“In the Church, in the world, many things will change, and youth will truly fight to have a place in this time of transformation,” he said, noting how Pope Francis said that youth “are not [just] the future,” but rather, “they are the present of the Church, and the present of humanity.” “What a responsibility it is for them also to be a youth in this time!” Archbishop Ulloa said, adding that the youth are “the fresh air that we have to continue hoping in for a different world.” If this world is possible, he said, “it's possible thanks to the youth.”  

Alvaro de Juana contributed to this piece.