PANAMA CITY — Mary’s unequivocal “Yes” to God’s calling is being held up as the guiding inspiration for this month’s World Youth Day in Panama — as the gathering’s theme is taken from Luke 1:38: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

World Youth Day Panama wants to energize young people living in an increasingly secular world and in the midst of recent Church scandals to become the future leaders that the Church needs, responding to God’s call with the same trust that Mary had.

The Latin American nation will host the 15th international World Youth Day (WYD) event in Panama City Jan. 22-27.

Because the Panama WYD takes place during the school year for young people in the Northern Hemisphere, more youths are expected to come from Latin America. To date, there are 11,000 U.S. youths registered to go.

“The numbers keep growing every day for those who register, but the timing during the school year has impacted the numbers,” said Paul Jarzembowski, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national coordinator for World Youth Day.

“There were 35,000 American youths at the July 2016 WYD in Krakow, Poland,” he said.

According to Jamie Lynn Black, international media coordinator for the Archdiocese of Panama, there are 240,000 international pilgrims in the first phase of registration for this year’s WYD and 168,000 in the second phase — for a total of 408,000 pilgrims. These numbers are expected to rise dramatically up until the event’s final papal Mass on Sunday. There are 20,000 volunteers.

“We have many more young adults participating now. During the first few WYDs there were many more teens. But now we are seeing more young adults in their 20s,” said Jarzembowski.

Organizers have noted that bringing groups of young adults is easier than bringing children, for safety reasons and because young adults are more mature.

The U.S. will be sending 31 bishops and Cardinals Seán O’Malley from Boston, Blase Cupich from Chicago and Daniel DiNardo from Galveston-Houston.

U.S. organizers have also noted that among American youth registered, there will be a strong Latino presence and a strong presence of U.S. bishops who are Latino.

“Though we don’t ask for anyone to tell us their ethnicity in the registration materials, many people are asking to participate in the Spanish catechesis events,” said Jarzembowski.

 

Pope’s Panama Schedule

Pope Francis will arrive in Panama Jan. 23, and the following day he plans to meet with the bishops of Central America and will attend World Youth Day’s formal opening ceremony at Cinta Costera, Panama City.

On Jan. 25, he will meet youths for a penance service, followed by a “Youth Way of the Cross.” Later that evening he will preside over a vigil Mass for youth at Metro Park.

The Holy Father will celebrate the concluding Mass Jan. 27 in Metro Park.

Among the prominent U.S. speakers are Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron from Los Angeles, the head of the Word on Fire Catholic Ministries global media apostolate; Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students); and Sister Bethany Madonna, of the Sisters of Life, an Augustinian Order of female religious with a special pro-life apostolate founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.

On Jan. 23, there will be an English-language festival called “FIAT.”

“This will be an afternoon and evening of music, testimonies and praise,” said Marilyn Santos, the assistant director for the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis at the USCCB.

The FIAT event will be open to English- and Spanish-speaking pilgrims from 2pm to midnight at the Centro de Convenciones de Amador in Panama City. Organizers are hoping to fill the 8,000-seat arena for the event, which is co-sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, FOCUS and the U.S. bishops’ conference. FIAT will also be live-streamed on the FOCUSCatholic Facebook page, Facebook.com/focuscatholic, and also the FOCUSCatholic YouTube channel.

There will be other ways to follow WYD from the U.S., including EWTN’s live broadcasts from Panama. The schedule can be found at EWTN.com.

 

Hope in Youth

The vision for the FIAT event is to explore the role of young people in the life of the Church and how young people can live the theme of WYD in their daily lives. Some of the U.S. speakers will be addressing the sexual-abuse crisis and the recent youth synod.

According to the USCCB’s Santos, during this difficult year in the life of the Church, many young people can find plenty of inspiration from their World Youth Day participation. Santos said that she has been to seven WYDs and has found that youth attend these events for various reasons.

“Young people go to connect with God and connect with God’s people,” Santos told the Register. “Some find the stirrings of a religious vocation. Some go because it looks like a lot of fun. Some have a clear path and get real clarity in their spiritual life.”

However, Santos added, the most important part of the event often happens only when young people return home.

“Many come home after spending several intense days at WYD, and they want to talk about it. They may be the only ones in their parish who went. We try to tell parents to listen to their kids. We don’t want those who went to WYD to come home and get deflated,” said Santos.

 

Panamanian Perspective

But it’s not only youth who look forward to the last week of January in Panama. For Panama City residents Yolanda Monteza, 75, and her husband, Oscar Monteza, 83, this papal visit is a cause for great joy.

“We lived in Rome for many years and happened to be there for the first World Youth Day in 1984. It was a more informal event, not as organized as now. But my eldest daughter, Katia, participated. She was even interviewed on Vatican Radio. At that event, Pope John Paul II announced that he would continue having World Youth Days for the young,” said Yolanda Monteza.

The Montezas have been participating in the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano (MFC), an international Catholic movement for families, for more than 50 years. During WYD 2019 in Panama, they will be staffing a booth at the WYD vocations’ fair, which has been taking place at every WYD since WYD 2002 in Toronto, Canada. The vocations’ fair will be held Jan. 22-25 at the Omar Torrijos Recreational Park from 9am to 5pm each day.

“For us to be a part of WYD Panama is a reminder of the first time we experienced WYD in Rome. We were able to eventually meet Pope John Paul II personally — wearing typical Panamanian costumes. We lived this experience, and it was so beautiful,” said Yolanda.

 

Next WYD Generation

For Katia Monteza, Yolanda and Oscar’s daughter, WYD 2019 also has a great deal of significance. Katia’s family will be involved on many levels: They will host four pilgrims in their house, and two sons, age 22 and 20, respectively, will accompany their grandparents to the vocations’ fair to give their testimony of seeing their grandparents’ 53-year marriage lived in the MFC movement.

In addition, Katia’s 17-year-old daughter will be a pilgrim at WYD, and her 20-year-old son, Ignacio, a biology student in college, will give a testimony about his work conserving the fauna and mammals indigenous to Panama, discussing the importance of being good stewards of God’s creation.

“This moment is very special to me,” said Katia. “I was 15 years old when I lived my first WYD. Now I get to relive it with my three children and parents, alongside pilgrims in our own house. We will get a chance to share who Jesus Christ and Mary are to us.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes

 from New York.

This story was updated at 5:59 ET Jan. 21 to include the link to

Facebook.com/focuscatholic.