English-language World Youth Day event draws diverse crowd

By Jonah McKeown

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The 15th International World Youth Day is underway in Panama City, with large contingents of Spanish-speaking pilgrims from countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and, of course, Panama, dominating most events with a joyful exuberance.

For those pilgrims who do not primarily speak Spanish, there are catechesis sessions and special events taking place throughout the city held in other languages.

An event for English-speaking pilgrims, “Fiat,” took place Jan. 23 at Figali Convention Center, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), and the Knights of Columbus. Speakers included FOCUS founder Curtis Martin, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, and Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life.

In addition to American pilgrims from almost every state, the event attracted many Asian, British, Australian, Indian, and Brazilian young people.

One group of 77 young people from the United States came to Panama from Alaska, representing the three Alaskan dioceses of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Fairbanks is the northernmost diocese in the United States, covering a vast, sparsely populated area of the state.

Theresa Austin, chaperone for the Alaskan group, told EWTN News that leaving the Alaskan winter for Central American summer was quite a change for the young pilgrims, and that it was difficult to prepare for the physical challenges of being a pilgrim at World Youth Day. Temperatures have stayed around 90 degrees Fahrenheit all week in Panama City, and the Alaskan group, lacking a bus for transport, has been walking 8-9 miles a day.

“[The temperature] was in the single digits when we left [Alaska],” she said.

“In the middle of winter, it’s very difficult to get the kids trained up. Especially for the heat.”

The Alaskan students cited the physical challenges of being a pilgrim, but several said being from such an outdoors-focused state has helped.

“Being from Alaska, you get a lot of opportunities to do outdoor stuff like that, and so I’m a bit more used to walking around a lot because we literally walk everywhere,” Antonia Duran, 18, told EWTN News.
Austin said the Alaskan pilgrims were in Costa Rica the week before World Youth Day, participating in a short mission and service trip, before embarking on a 25-hour bus ride to Panama City. She said the mission trip was a wonderful opportunity for the pilgrims to get to know each other before WYD.

Many of the other pilgrims in attendance bonded over their common knowledge of English, even if they came from different countries. A group of four pilgrims, all of whom were originally from Vietnam, met and became friends at World Youth Day and attended the Fiat event. Nearly all are expats: Two now live in France, while another now lives in Australia and hopes soon to be ordained a priest after studying for nearly eight years.

“We had a very surprising meeting,” Francisco Ndoc, a Vietnamese pilgrim, told EWTN News.

“Some Vietnamese from France, one from Australia, and myself, from Vietnam,” he said.

Anthony Diep, a Vietnamese seminarian who now lives in Australia, just finished his pastoral year and has about two years remaining before becoming a priest. He said he faced many challenges to his faith when he lived in Vietnam, including occasional harassment by the police.

“Today, a lot of people have inspired me greatly because they share in the experience of encountering Christ, so that inspires me,” Diep told EWTN News.

The event included addresses from several U.S. bishops, including Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas and Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport. In his speech Caggiano did not shy away from speaking about the sexual abuse crisis and a need for reform for the Church, telling young people that they will be the ones responsible for helping to purify the Church going forward.

“I think it’s a twofold message: first to be encouraged in their own pursuit of holiness, that the families of those around them should not deter them from asking what He wants me to do,” Caggiano told EWTN News after the event.

“And the second is to be encouraged by all these young people that feel the same way...The Church needs to be in some ways purified and renewed, but they are going to be at the front lines of doing that. They just need to be mentored and guided. And that’s what we’re here to do.”

“What I’m hoping is that this will be a celebration of joy,” the bishop said.

“Joy is that sense that God will take care of us even when we’re troubled, even when we’re tempted to be discouraged and even to despair. We can’t do that; that’s not an option for a believer...My pilgrims, they leave school, they sacrifice to come here- this is not a nonchalant decision, it really takes a lot of effort and a lot of commitment. So my hope is that they realize that if they can do this small thing, then they can do a big thing, which is to accept the invitation to live a real life of holiness.”

Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life told EWTN News that the conversations she’s had with young people so far have been very encouraging.

“The conversations I’ve had so far have been so beautiful, because the young people from every country that I’ve encountered – Malaysia, Uruguay, here in Panama itself, and also in the United States, Australia – the ends of the earth are coming,” she said.

She said she recently fielded questions from two young female pilgrims who were asking for advice on how to make a good confession: “These questions of the heart of: Who am I? Who is the Lord? How do I go deeper in my relationship with Him?”

She said for those youth who were not able to attend World Youth Day, they can still pray to unite their heart to the graces being poured out in Panama.

“I can trust that the grace to say yes, to persevere, will be there because [God is] faithful,” she said.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was also in attendance. He told EWTN News that in his experience, World Youth Day is a great source of vocations for the Church.

“Something like 40 percent of our seminarians in the United States were 'made' in World Youth Day,” he said.

“That just speaks volumes on the spiritual impact that this experience has on people’s lives.”

He also noted that many of the young people at this World Youth Day may not have been able to come had it not been held in Panama.

“I’m delighted that so many kids from Central America who wouldn’t have the possibility of going to another part of the world are able to come here and experience the great grace of seeing the universality of the Church,” O’Malley said.

“We are a Church of over a billion Catholics, coming in every size, shape, and color, speaking every language imaginable, all part of the same family. Celebrating the sacraments...uniting in the Eucharist.”

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