SALT LAKE CITY — A delegation from the Diocese of Salt Lake City comprised of 11 young people participated in World Youth Day 2019, which took place in Panama Jan. 19-28.
The youth were accompanied by Junuee Castro, director of the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adults Ministry; Marylyn Acosta, executive assistant to the bishop; Father Jose Fidel Barrera, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish; and Gladys Gazani, mother of one of the delegates.
“This was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other and to establish the accompaniment we need in our faith journey,” Castro said about the experience.
Their pilgrimage was not as easy as many would think, she said; among other difficulties, they walked miles and miles under the sun in the country’s heat and humidity.
“It was hot and there was a lot of people … long walks … but the reward was worth it,” said Zachary Mecham, 18, a University of Utah student and St. Martin de Porres parishioner.
As the only non-Hispanic member of the diocesan delegation, he found that the experience awoke in him an interest in seeing how youth responded to that kind of environment.
“Here in Utah you don’t see many Catholic youth together, and in Panama that’s all you saw,” he said. “The passion they use to express the faith … when they saw the pope they just erupted into emotions. It really impressed me.”
WYD helped him see and appreciate things in a different way, Mecham said.
“I want to be more active, more helpful to people, to start giving more to the poor,” he said. “It’s made me more open as a person.”
The other diocesan delegates were Gabriela Apraez, also of St. Martin de Porres Parish; Yuliana Rodriguez, Darlin Garay, Victoria Palestino and sisters Elizabeth, Patricia Yamile and Estrella Estrada, parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish; Alejandra Gonzalez of St. Francis of Assisi Parish; and Giancarlo Gazani, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Madeleine.
World Youth Day is like a worldwide retreat for young people. “It’s festive, enriching participants with the flavor and culture of the host nation. It’s centered around prayer and shows how people of different cultures, but one faith, worship. Confessions are heard daily in every language,” states the WYD official web page.
“There were priests [hearing] Confession even in the shopping malls,” Castro said.
The event included a walking pilgrimage and an overnight vigil where pilgrims slept under the stars in anticipation of the Mass with the pope.
“There is a huge emphasis on vocation discernment with religious orders and lay leaders from all over the world. It all builds up to a visit from Pope Francis,” according to the WYD web page.
The 2019 World Youth Day theme was “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Most of the events were held on Cinta Costera, a 64-acre peninsula in Panama Bay. For WYD it was renamed Campo Santa Maria la Antigua.
Several WYD events were conducted only in English. For example, on Jan. 23, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with the Knights of Columbus and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, sponsored an event called “Fiat” in Panama City. The event featured renowned Catholic speakers and musicians.
Pope Francis arrived in Panama on Jan. 23. The next day he met with Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, president of Panama. He also had a meeting with the Central American bishops, then there was the welcome ceremony that marked the beginning of WYD.
During the Jan. 24 official ceremony welcoming him to World Youth Day, the pope told the young people, “By your actions and your approach, your way of looking at things, your desires and above all your sensitivity, you discredit and defuse the kind of talk that is intent on sowing division, on excluding or rejecting those who are not ‘like us,’” according to Catholic News Service.
“It was a beautiful experience,” said Patricia Yamile Estrada, a Judge Memorial Catholic High School student who attended WYD with her sisters Estrella and Elizabeth.
“Being surrounded by so many Catholics was just amazing. … It was really surprising. Despite the fact I attend a Catholic school, the students there are not always excited; they don’t really show their Catholic faith. But there [in Panama] all the youth were really excited, they were really proud and happy to show their Catholic faith,” she said.
Early on Jan. 28, Pope Francis presided at WYD’s closing Mass, addressing a crowd of about 700,000.
“With Mary, keep saying ‘yes’ to the dream that God has sown in you,” Pope Francis said to the attendees in his message.
The pope’s message really struck Estrada.
“Something did change in me,” she said. “The words ‘Not tomorrow but now’ hit me hard. … I came back ready to accept what God is telling me to do with my life, what God’s plan is for me.”
Estrada, who wants to become a teacher, said that she also wants to share with the Catholic youth in Utah that they shouldn’t hide their Catholic faith.
“Don’t be afraid to express your Catholic faith. … There might be some other [faiths] around, but if you are wanting to express your Catholic faith, just do it,” she said. “You will make the Catholic Church a much better place.”
The next World Youth Day will be held in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022.