The shacks of Boca la Caja, a poor neighborhood in Panama City, stand in the shadow of opulent high-rises just blocks away. Young men and children patrol the streets in four-wheel ATVs while their elders play dominoes at a playground steps away from open sewage.

This is the place where a group of 160 young Catholics from different parts of California came with a mission, hours after getting off a red-eye flight from LAX: to proclaim “the reason for their hope,” the reason they’d left the comfort of home and missed at least a week of school to go to World Youth Day (WYD), an international gathering for Catholic young people convoked every few years by the last three popes.

California pilgrims dance during a popular mission in the Boca la Caja neighborhood of Panama City January 24. PABLO KAY

Seventeen-year-old Enrique McDonald described the afternoon spent singing, dancing, and inviting locals to join them in accompanying Pope Francis during his four day visit to the country as “uplifting.”

“I felt at peace in that moment, and was reminded of how blessed I’ve been,” said McDonald, who belongs to a community of the Neocatechumenal Way at St. John the Evangelist Church in South LA. “Despite the heat, the tiring trip, and all the walking, it’s a blessing to be here.”

McDonald was one of the estimated 600,000 people to attend this year’s World Youth Day, held for the first time in Central America since St. Pope John Paul II founded the event in 1984.

Much of the attention surrounding the event was centered on questions about the reawakening sex abuse crisis, the global immigration debate, and the political turmoil in nearby Venezuela. But for the young people who had spent months planning, fundraising, and praying for World Youth Day, the trip was about something much simpler: an encounter with Christ. 

“I felt the Lord calling to me to come to Panama, to see what he had prepared for me,” said Amy Rodriguez, who celebrated her 25th birthday at the Saturday vigil with the Holy Father at the St. Pope John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26.

Having missed out on the previous World Youth Day held in Kraków, Poland, Rodriguez, a parishioner at St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena, was determined not to miss this one. She told Angelus News she will return home with more clarity about how to live her faith as a single person. 

“Young adults — and all people — should dream big, and we shouldn’t be afraid to give our lives to the Lord,” she answered when asked about the most important thing she’d take away from the event. 

Twenty-four-year-old Juan Martinez said he’d also come for an encounter with Jesus Christ, but specifically to help confirm his vocation. He told Angelus News he was praying for the grace to remain chaste and keep Christ at the center of his relationship with his girlfriend. 

Martinez was particularly struck by one of the petitions pronounced at the Saturday night vigil that prayed for young people in relationships not to be afraid of marriage, and for married couples to be open to new life.

“I think the Lord gave me this encounter with the pope to see if I want to really do the will of God,” said Martinez, a parishioner from St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Van Nuys. 

For younger pilgrims from North America and Europe like McDonald, attending this World Youth Day presented an unusual challenge, coming at a time when the typical school year is in full swing. 

Groups such as the pilgrims from St. John the Evangelist Church and St. Elizabeth Church kept their pilgrimage to six days, rather than the 10-14 day, multi-country treks they’d made for past World Youth Days.

But for their Latin American counterparts on the other side of the world, it came during the customary summer break for students — a welcome break for most in this part of the globe. While estimates are still sketchy, it was widely apparent that a majority of pilgrims had come from Central and South America.

It also came during Panama’s dry season. Pilgrims endured humid weather reaching in the 90s during the day, and also got an extra early wake-up call Sunday morning (compared to previous WYDs) so that Mass could finish before 10 a.m. and pilgrims could be on their way before temperatures peaked. 

But they did not have to deal with rain (a real factor in the last two WYDs in Brazil and Poland), and were instead treated to a cool breeze from the Pacific Ocean. 

That was a welcome relief for the thousands who slept in sleeping bags at the St. Pope John Paul II Field in the hours between the Saturday night vigil and the closing Mass the next morning. 

Performers led some willing participants in Catholic-themed musical performances with the help of jumbotrons. But most pilgrims, it seemed, preferred to mill about the field, joining dance circles and guitar serenades, sharing a quick meal, and making new friends among other who shared their faith.

The thousands who walked miles to and from the park got a taste of hospitality, Panamanian-style: Pilgrims were treated to free bottles of water, cups of coffee, bus-shuttle rides to the city’s center, and even water-hose sprays for overheated passerby pilgrims. 

Pope Francis waves to California pilgrims (in orange) from the Popemobile on his way to the Closing Mass of World Youth Day Panama January 27. ANAKKAH SERRANO

World Youth Day in Panama came on the heels of another global Church event that sought to prioritize both the gifts and needs of young Catholics: October’s Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. 

In his homily at WYD’s closing Mass, Francis reminded the youth of one of the main themes of the synod’s final document: the need to “create channels and spaces that encourage dreaming of and working for tomorrow, starting today. 

“A space that is not simply taken for granted, or won in a lottery, but a space for which you, too, must fight,” Francis said. 

In what was perhaps the pope’s most memorable line in the homily, he told young people they “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.”

The pope also said Jesus is not “an interval in life nor a passing fad,” but a loving God who’s concrete and close.

“Brothers and sisters, the Lord and his mission are not a “meantime” in our life, something temporary; they are our life!” Francis said. 

For 27-year-old art teacher Marina Macias, it was the prospect of knowing Jesus as a real and concrete person that brought her to her first World Youth Day. 

“I felt the Lord calling to me to come to Panama, to see what he had prepared for me,” said Macias, a parishioner at St. John Vianney in Hacienda Heights. 

Specifically, Macias was looking for healing from multiple instances of abuse. In Panama, she found it during moments with the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed for adoration to pilgrims at a park before a WYD-themed concert. 

“My vocation is to love, especially Jesus through the Blessed Sacrament,” Macias answered when asked what she’d taken away from the pilgrimage so far. 

Thirty-three-year-old Richard Chen told Angelus News that he saw the hand of God in bringing him to his first WYD. After a reversion to the Catholic faith six years ago, Chen resisted invitations to attend previous encounters. 

“I kept saying no, over and over.”

This time, he wasn’t as successful. When a group of LA-area nuns were forced to cancel its plans for the trip, organizers were left with their nonrefundable deposits. They called Chen. 

“[God] was calling me and telling me, ‘If you want to go, I’ll make it happen,’ ” recalled Chen. “One by one, all my fears and anxieties were knocked down.”

Joining Rodriguez, Chen and Macias in their San Gabriel Valley-area group was regional Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell, who joined the 35 pilgrims for several of the week’s activities and excursions. 

Rodriguez said her group appreciated O’Connell’s closeness to them, especially when he decided to cancel previous plans one day in order to spend more time with them. 

“He just wanted to hear our stories, what we were learning here as young people, and how we were touched here by Jesus,” said Rodriguez of “Bishop Dave.” “His care and concern for us was just really touching. He’s just a genuine person, and me and the group really appreciate that.”

At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Kevin Farrell (head of the Vatican dicastery that oversees World Youth Day) announced the next event that the newest generation of Catholic young people will have the next 3 ½ years to look forward to: that the next World Youth Day will be held in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022.

If it’s anything like Panama 2019, it should be worth the wait.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims from the Popemobile as he enters Campo San Juan Pablo II for a vigil with youth January 26. DANIEL IBAÑEZ/CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY

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