Pilgrims lined the streets of Panama City to welcome Pope Francis to World Youth Day and his first papal visit to Central America.
Pope Francis was greeted by dancers and was accompanied on the tarmac by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and first lady Lorena Castillo Jan. 23. There were no speeches; because of the 13-hour flight from Rome, the official welcoming ceremonies by government officials and World Youth Day participants were scheduled for Jan. 24.
Panama City Archbishop Jose Ulloa Mendieta accompanied the Pope through the streets of the capital to the apostolic nunciature, waving to pilgrims from a popemobile built in Panama with the help of young Panamanians.
There are almost 1,400 Canadians registered for WYD and since 2002, it has been a tradition for Canadians to kick off the week of celebration together. Correa said it helps pilgrims enter into the pilgrimage experience.
A group of 25 pilgrims from the Edmonton Archdiocese is in Panama for World Youth Day. Young people who couldn’t travel are invited to celebrate World Youth Day at home on Jan. 26.
In Panama, the message to pilgrims was clear: Get on social media and share the Good News
“Don’t be shy,” World Youth Day Canada co-ordinator Isabel Correa told more than 500 Canadians gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Panama on Jan. 22.
“Sometimes we like to live privately and we’re afraid to share on social media and identify who we are. That’s our mission here, to break all those barriers and share as much as possible.
“You are ambassadors,” she said to the crowd. “You’re not alone. You’re carrying all the people who made it possible for you to be here so share that to people back home.”
Seven of nine Canadian bishops in Panama also joined the youth in song and celebration. Canadian bishops’ conference president and Saint-Jean Longueuil Bishop Lionel Gendron told pilgrims that when they share their photos, they share the joy of World Youth Day and the joy found in Jesus.
“We are not just ambassadors of Canada but ambassadors of Jesus,” he said. “Through the lens of God, you are seen as who you are and it’s a grace…. When you take a picture, you must see through the eyes of God. You must see yourself and your fellow man through the eyes of God.”
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine said it has been an honour to meet so many Canadian pilgrims enthusiastic about their faith.
“In today’s world, we think sometimes that young people are far from the faith or far from the Church, but this (event) bears witness to the power of God and how it touches young people’s hearts,” he said. “It is happening, the New Evangelization, and it has been happening. God is always at work in people’s hearts, especially in the hearts of young people.”
The highlight of the Holy Father’s visit was to be the vigil and closing Mass of World Youth Day, but Pope Francis also was scheduled to celebrate a penitential liturgy Jan. 25 with young inmates at Las Garzas de Pacora Juvenile Detention Center in Pacora. He also will visit Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano (Good Samaritan Home), a centre dedicated to helping people with HIV-AIDS.
During the flight from Rome to Panama, Pope Francis was asked by a Japanese journalist if he will be visiting the country.
“I will go to Japan in November. Get ready!” Pope Francis replied.
He also told another journalist aboard the flight that while there are no immediate plans to travel to Iraq, he hopes to visit one day.
“I want to go, I told them that I wanted to go, but they were the ones who told me, ‘Not right now, it isn’t safe,'” the Pope said. “But I do want to go and I am following the situation closely.”
The Pope, who is visiting Panama for World Youth Day, thanked the journalists for their work in covering the event and led them in a moment of silence and prayer for Alexei Bukalov, a journalist for the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, who died in December.
His voice trembling with emotion, Pope Francis remembered Bukalov as “a man of great humanism,” whom “I cared for very much.”
“He was a man capable of synthesizing reports in the style of Dostoyevsky. I am sure that we will all miss him,” the pope said.
As is his custom, Pope Francis greeted each of the 70 journalists on the plane, smiling and exchanging words with each one, accepting letters and posing for photographs.
An Italian journalist told Pope Francis of a recent visit he made to Tijuana, Mexico, where he witnessed the plight of the caravan of migrants making their way to the U.S. border, only to find a wall that “reaches all the way to the ocean.”
A wall that goes to the ocean “is madness,” the pope said. “It is fear that makes us crazy.”
-With files from Jean Ko Din, Canadian Catholic News