World Youth Day, the Catholic Church’s celebration for young people held every two or three years in locations around the globe, was held in Panama for the first time Jan. 22-27. Nearly 80 Alaskans participated.
Matthew Beck, archdiocesan director of evangelization and discipleship for the Anchorage Archdiocese said Panama rose to the occasion.
“It was the friendliest and most welcoming we’ve ever encountered,” said Beck, who along with Theresa Austin from Holy Cross Parish, assisted Bob McMorrow, director of evangelization and catechesis at St. Benedict Church, in organizing and leading Alaska’s contingent.
“Every third or fourth car had a World Youth Day logo on it, and they would honk joyfully,” Beck recalled. “The Panamanians even recast one of their coins in honor of World Youth Day.”
Since the event is usually held in the Northern Hemisphere, it normally coincides with summer for most European and U.S. citizens. Although Panama is in the Northern Hemisphere, this year’s January event fell during summer break for Panamanians and those farther South. Organizers believed this is why attendance was lower this year, but by the time Mass was held on the final day so many Panamanians had joined the other pilgrims that estimates of Mass attendance ranged from 300,000 to 500,000. Panama is 85 percent Catholic.
World Youth Day is meant to be a pilgrimage, and a way of participating in a tangible way in the universal church. A highlight of the event is always the final Mass with the pope, and this year did not disappoint the 76 pilgrims who traveled with the group from Alaska.
The night before the Mass, an all-night vigil is held which includes adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in an open field,” said Beck, “and it was absolutely silent.”
The vigil presented most Alaskans with their first chance to see Pope Francis — they had gotten there early to find a good spot — and he drove right passed them in his popemobile. They saw him again close-up the next morning at Mass.
The Alaskans also spotted the president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, and the first lady, as they casually strolled by at the vigil.
One thing that surprised the Alaskans was the modernity and prosperity of Panama City, where they stayed in a hotel.
Forty-one pilgrims traveled early and visited a small village in Costa Rica as part of a three-day mission experience. There they experienced a more impoverished part of Central America.
For Ashley Hernandez, a 19-year-old social work student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, it confirmed her desire to help others through her chosen career.
Hernandez, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe co-Cathedral and a fluent Spanish speaker, admitted, “I wasn’t that spiritually invested when we left for the mission trip.”
But the experience changed her. Like many pilgrims before her, she said the event left her feeling more connected to God, with a more positive attitude and a desire to go back.
“Have a missionary heart, be grateful — I repeat those mantras to myself,” she said.
Those on the mission trip spent days doing home visits, helping to build a community shed, and repainting an outdoor bathroom. Hernandez said she was moved by the friendliness of the people, and their willingness to share what they had.
Bob McMorrow has coordinated numerous World Youth Day trips for the archdiocese. Although worldwide, most participants fall into an older demographic than the Alaskan groups, McMorrow said it is important to include high schoolers because the experience prepares them for the challenges to their faith that college can present.
“It’s a good tradition in our Alaskan dioceses,” he observed. Like Beck, he said the highlights are the vigil — walking with pilgrims from across the world, experiencing adoration with thousands — and the papal Mass.
“After these two moments, I think, ‘Wow, that’s why we’re here,’” McMorrow recalled
The Holy Spirit, he said, does not disappoint.
“I always feel, ‘It worked again,’” he said.
Of Alaska’s group, Father Tom Lilly, pastor at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, was the only clergy. Forty of the attendees were high school and middle school youth. Holy Cross Church, Holy Family Cathedral, Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, St. Anthony Church, St. Benedict Church, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church were all represented, as well as St. Nicholas Parish in North Pole.
The next World Youth Day will be in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022.