PANAMA CITY — The World Youth Day experience began early for Gregory Giangiordano and his fellow pilgrims who came to stay with the Panamanian Catholics living in the poor remote village of El Guabo.
Giangiordano arrived at the village with other missionaries from Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and college-age young people. The local parish could not afford to send pilgrims to World Youth Day, and the local faithful were overjoyed that, in a real way, World Youth Day had come to them.
“I was struck with how joyful they were and happy to see us, hosting pilgrims for World Youth Day,” he said. “They took care of us as if we were their own.”
More than 12,000 American youth and young adults from the United States, aged 16 to 35, have come to Panama for the 34th-annual celebration of World Youth Day (WYD). This year’s global Catholic meeting with the Pope runs through Jan. 27, and events are taking place in and around Panama City under the theme “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
For American Catholic young people, the World Youth Day experience has had a rejuvenating effect, thanks to experiencing the Church’s universality in gathering with other young Catholics from around the globe.
Giangiordano said his group felt blessed by their fellow Catholics’ kindness and hospitality in El Guabo before they proceeded to Panama City, where FOCUS and the Knights of Columbus hosted the “FIAT” conference for WYD.
During their stay in the village, they had an opportunity to minister to their fellow Catholics, visiting the sick, comforting the dying and praying with them. Having a priest with them allowed the Catholics in El Guabo to receive the sacraments more frequently — usually the parish has a priest only once a month and at other times gathers to recite the Rosary, sing hymns and offer other prayers on Sundays. In turn, the pilgrims felt richly blessed by their hosts’ “incredible” Catholic example.
As Giangiordano said, “To see that joy, generosity and willingness to share with others was amazing.”
World Youth Day celebrations and events engaged participants heavily in the theme of Mary’s fiat, or “yes,” to God.
Alani Bonilla, 30, told the Register she has been discerning a call to the consecrated lay life for two years. She said the World Youth Day experience confirmed in her the desire to say “Yes” to this vocation.
Bonilla, who studies at the Franciscan School of Theology in Oceanside, California, is part of a group of 35 people traveling with Bishop David O’Connell, an auxiliary for the San Gabriel region of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. She said she plans to mobilize young people back home and give them some of the World Youth Day experience this summer, so they, too, can become “young missionary disciples that want to fulfill God’s call.”
“I hope to bring back this fire to the San Gabriel region,” she said.
Bonilla said it was “so nice to spread Jesus’s love” in Panama City. She witnessed how the event has enlivened faith in local Panamanians. She said one 27-year-old Panamanian woman explained how she fell away from the faith, but after getting involved in World Youth Day preparations, she realized, “This is the Church I need to come back to.”
Luke Nguyen, a 28-year-old from Seattle, traveled down to Panama — making a short visit to Peru — with a delegation of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement. He told the Register that Panama is his fourth WYD in 11 years, and he met Pope Francis in 2015 for the 100th anniversary of the youth movement.
Nguyen said a lot has changed for the WYD experience in 10 years — smartphones and social media were nowhere near as ubiquitous when Benedict XVI came to Sydney. But he explained that the excitement of being with other Catholics and present with the Pope, the visible symbol of Catholic communion, never gets old.
Their group picked a spot at the opening event with Pope Francis at the Cinta Costera and had sat down, when the crowd surged in their direction as the Pope sped by on the popemobile.
“Just seeing their reaction yesterday reminded me of my reaction the first time,” he said.
Nguyen said World Youth Day provides Catholics a wonderful opportunity to go beyond the horizons of the parish and really engage with other Catholics around the world who are all part of the same Body of Christ. Nguyen said their group has helped represent both the Vietnamese people and also helped people around the world realize that Americans are diverse.
“I’m really excited to meet other people,” he said.
Justin Lizama, a 17-year-old member of St. Raphael’s parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, told the Register that, as a pilgrim, he has been talking with fellow Catholic youth from around the world and trading symbols of each other’s countries. So far, he’s collected a Japanese coin, a rosary from Mexico, a Colombian bracelet and a red maple-leaf pen from Canada. He’s also seen the beauty of Panama’s rainforest and the expanse of the Panama Canal that links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
But the moment of happiness and peace from World Youth Day in Panama City Lizama treasures in his heart is when he saw a poor man begging for food next to the grocery store near their hotel. After watching people pass the poor man by without looking at him, Lizama took the tickets for his World Youth Day lunch and gave them to the man.
“He said, ‘All this — for me?” Lizama recounted. “He was so grateful and full of praise to the Lord.”
“I felt just so much happiness,” he added.
Lizama said he did not really pray seriously before World Youth Day, but that has changed. Now, he wants to speak with God and listen daily, in order to carry such peace and happiness in his heart.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.