For Pope Francis, the next five days may well feel like a blur: He’ll be traveling some 12,000 miles in all, with 10 speeches, a keenly anticipated meeting with the bishops of Central America, a lunch with young people from five continents, a penitential liturgy and confessions at a prison, an open-air Way of the Cross, then he’ll cap it off with a Sunday Mass for tens of thousands - set to start at 8:00 a.m. to try to prevent heat strokes.
All that, naturally, to be followed by an airborne press conference in which the pontiff is virtually certain to field some tough questions about the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals, including an upcoming Feb. 21-24 summit on the subject called by Francis.
That is, in a nutshell, the schedule for Francis’s trip to Panama for World Youth Day, which opens today. For a man who turned 82 last December, it’s an experience designed to test even his legendary stamina.
World Youth Day, an international gathering founded by St. John Paul II in the mid-1980s and sometimes dubbed the “Catholic Woodstock,” is one of the largest regularly held religious festivals in the world. The choice of Panama for this year’s edition is especially symbolic, since the country is often perceived as a bridge - or, more accurately, a canal - between east and west, as well as north and south on the American continent.
It offers a perfect stage for the pope to address the young people in the region, including those from neighboring countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua and Guatemala. All have been affected by violence, a product of civil wars, organized crime, guerrilla insurrections, or a combination of all three.
Francis being Francis, he’s also bound to talk about migration starting with the first scheduled speech of the trip, set to take place on Thursday, when he addresses local authorities.
“It’s evident that many of the young people he will address are migrants,” said Italian layman Alessandro Gisotti, the papal spokesman. “You can expect a few words from the Holy Father about this issue.”
Panama will soon have presidential elections and the issue of migration is on everyone’s mind, particularly seeing the thousands of migrants arriving from Venezuela and Colombia fleeing hunger, violence and instability.
The best and worst of the local scene will be on full display while the pope’s in town. Most of his outdoor activities will take place in the coastal area of Panama City, where the president’s house is located. Right across the street there’s a ghetto full of brothels, a keen irony for a pope who’s often spoken out against prostitution, particularly as it relates to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
On Thursday, Francis is set to meet with some 60 bishops from Central America at the Church of St. Francis. If he holds true to form, he’ll be both encouraging and demanding, addressing corruption, clericalism, the future of the Church in the region and the many challenges facing youth, including unemployment, drug addiction, organized crime and other worldly temptations.
If he holds true to expectations, he’ll also talk about clerical sexual abuse and its impact on the faith of young people.
Speaking to young people in Estonia last September, this is how he put it: “We know - as you have told us - that many young people do not ask us for anything because they don’t consider us significant to their existence.”
“Some, in fact, expressly ask to be left in peace, because they feel the presence of the Church is annoying or even irritating,” he said, to add: “They become outraged when they do not see a clear condemnation of sexual and economic scandals.”
Seeing that 40 percent of the cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors being investigated in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith come from Latin America, Francis is bound to at least mention it when talking to his brother bishops.
On Thursday afternoon, with reflections by young people from El Salvador, Haiti, Peru and Mexico introducing the patron saints of the event, Francis’s participation in WYD will officially begin.
The patron saints for this year’s edition include St. John Paul II; St. Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador murdered in 1980 as he was saying Mass; the Mexican child martyr Jose Sanchez del Rio; Peruvian St. Rosa of Lima; another Mexican, Juan Diego, the visionary of Our Lady of Guadalupe; and also Peruvian St. Martin de Porres, known as “Brother Broom,” who couldn’t profess vows as a Dominican brother and instead entered the monastery as the man tapped for cleaning it.
Despite the generally celebratory ethos of a World Youth Day, Friday has always been a day of recollection. In 2016, when the event was held in Krakow, Poland, Francis visited the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a silent pilgrimage.
With no history of bloody wars or extermination camps, in Panama the pope will instead go to a youth detention center, where he’ll preside over a penitential liturgy and, for the first time in the history of WYD, the pope will hear confessions at a prison.
“Friday is particularly significant,” Gisotti told journalists in Rome. There are some 200 young people detained in the Center of Las Garzas de Pacora, some 20 miles from Panama City and the pope “wants for these young people, who obviously cannot participate [in WYD], to have the chance to live this moment.”
Some 200 confessionals were built by the inmates, and over one million rosaries will be distributed throughout the week created by women at a female detention center.
Later that afternoon, Francis will lead the WYD participants in the meditation of the Way of the Cross. “It’s a day that underlines suffering and reconciliation,” Gisotti said.
Saturday and Sunday will be more festive, with the pontiff having lunch with young people, leading a prayer vigil and, before departing, announcing where the next WYD will take place. (All bets are on Portugal, as the country’s president has already announced he’s attending the closing Mass, while the image of Our Lady of Fatima has left Portugal for the first time since 2000 to be present in Panama.)
Events will be held in Panama City’s Coastal Line, the only public space large enough to host what organizers estimate will be close to a quarter of a million people. Though not a small number, it’s significantly smaller than the usual WYD crowd, with some four million participating in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and over 2.5 million in the closing Mass in Poland in 2016.
However, the number of attendees for the final Mass could be larger than anticipated: As Paulina Guzik, head of the International Press office for WYD Krakow noted, only 350,000 signed up to take part in the 2016 gathering, but many more showed up.
So far, there are 239,000 pilgrims who have announced their intention to participate, with only 180,000 actually paying to do so, which includes meals, insurance, public transportation and lodging.
Interestingly, there are more volunteers (20,000) than Panamanian pilgrims who’ve registered, close to 8,000. Though participation is usually led by Italians, this time the second-largest number comes from the United States, followed by Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Poland. Francis’s fellow Argentines aren’t even in the top 10, an odd fact seeing that in Rio there were close to 2,000 Argentine volunteers and 30,000 pilgrims.
The timing - the winter of the northern hemisphere, rather than summer - together with the cost of a plane ticket, may help explain the absence of European countries in the top 10. However, due to the weather it was impossible to hold WYD in Panama at a different date, and as Gisotti said, the pope also wanted for young people from the region to be able to participate without having to worry about skipping work or school.
Organizers have estimated the cost of the event at $54 million, but Panama is projecting income of over $250 million to its economy.
Thousands of pilgrims also 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 traveling from Nicaragua for the event has also suffered greatly.