World Youth Day pilgrims gathered at the Amador Convention Center in Panama City on Jan. 23 for the “Fiat Festival,” the largest English-speaking gathering of pilgrims, sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), the Knights of Columbus, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to listen to speakers reflect on the role of young people in this current moment in the Church.

Several bishops acknowledged the difficult time the Church is facing right now, but encouraged the young people to persevere in their faith and follow God’s plan for their lives.

“As easy as it is to deny the fact that we are Catholic in this world, we are called to have the strength and grace to testify to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel message, and do so with love and with courage and with charity,” said Dallas Bishop Edward Burns. “…Let us never forget, when we are tempted to bow out of this wonderful Catholic community of ours, we don’t ever separate ourselves from Jesus because of Judas.”

Dallas Bishop Edward Burns (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Just as Mary’s willingness to say ‘yes’ brought us salvation, Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano told the young people that in the midst of all of the bad news in the world and in the Church, they now have the opportunity to decide what they are going to choose.

“For the time that the Church has in anyway failed you and anyone in the Church has failed you, I am deeply sorry,” said Bishop Caggiano. “And I ask you in this time of shadows and darkness to join with me and all others who wish to move forward, allow our Church to be healed and transformed; purified and let into the world as the light of Christ that we are meant to be.”

He described the time that the Church is in as one of twilight, where the light mixes with the darkness.

“We have come to Panama not simply to admit the shadows and the sins in our midst, but to come to seek the grace to rebuild the Church one person at a time,” he said. “…We, my friends, have come to celebrate also the light. The light that grows in our communities. The light that Pope Francis invited the whole world to see in you, young people of the Church.”

Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Twilight, he pointed out, happens twice a day – once when the sun rises in the morning, and once when the sun sets at night. As Mary made a choice, “the first choice you and I are asked to make is, ‘In this time of twilight, what do we want the dawn or the dusk?’” he said.

“Do we want the dawn, when you and I, seeking holiness of life, will in ordinary ways bring the light of Christ to whomever we meet, or will we sit back and say, ‘the darkness is here and I surrender to it?’” asked Bishop Caggiano. Choosing the dawn, he said, “begins with whether or not you and I are willing to be surprised by God.”

Curtis Martin, the founder of FOCUS, encouraged the pilgrims not just to invite God into their lives to “do some redecorating” and make their life an easier, better version of what they want, but rather to invite God to do some reconstructing.

“God doesn’t come into your life and make it better,” he said. “God comes into your life and makes it way bigger.”

As an example, he spoke about the passage where Jesus gets into Peter’s boat after a day where he caught very little fish, and instructs him to put his net out into the deep side of the water. They got the biggest catch they had ever gotten, and if things had gone as Peter wanted, he probably would have brought Jesus along on all of his fishing trips, leading to a very successful fishing career.

Instead, Jesus calls Peter to leave that all behind and tells him, “You are going to be fishers of men.” As a result, his life became much bigger, much more intense, and much harder, but it led to him becoming the first pope, and having successors that continue today – all the way to Pope Francis, who yesterday arrived in Panama City for World Youth Day.

Drew and Kim Dillingham (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Speakers from different walks of life shared about the ‘”yes’s” that they have said in their own lives of faith as young people, including Drew and Kim Dillingham, parishioners of Immaculate Conception Parish in Washington, who spoke about saying “yes” to marriage; Sarah Halweg, a young adult from the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, who spoke about saying “yes” to starting a young adult ministry at her parish; and Sister Bethany Madonna, who spoke about the series of “yes’s” that led her to join the Sisters of Life at age 22.

Halweg told her own story of graduating college with a degree in chemical engineering but being unable to find a job for a long time, leaving her feeling worthless. During this difficult time in her life, she decided to fill her time by getting involved at her Church, even though she was initially terrified to do so.

“By all accounts in society I had failed,” she said. “When I walked through the doors of my Church, I thought that everybody was going to see that. Instead, I found in my Church a community – a community of many different life experiences. Experiences that taught me that this time in my life would pass and that there is a reason for my suffering. I confided my fears, hopes and dreams in the church community and they not only listened to me but comforted me and prayed for me.”

After being welcomed into her parish community, she learned that a lot of young adults were going through the same thing, but she did not learn that from them – she learned it from their parents, because “they had not chosen, like me, to turn toward their parish.”

So, she began a young adult group at her parish, and encouraged the pilgrims to say a similar “yes” to taking action.

“Young adults, such as myself, are easily lost in a crowd,” she said, noting that they are getting married and having children later, and often are unable to commit to one parish community because of the uncertainty in where God is going to take them in their lives.

“I didn’t see where I fit into the Church as a single, jobless woman,” she said. “After much prayer, I realized I was focusing on the wrong things. Instead of what I needed the Church to do for me, I decided I needed to spend time on what I could do for her.”

Sister Bethany Madonna took the pilgrims back to the very beginning of their lives, telling them that before they were born, “God the father spoke a fiat over you. He said, ‘let there be you.’”

Sister Bethany Madonna (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

She explained that God took the time to create each individual uniquely, which is physically displayed in how no two people’s fingerprints are the same. And if God took that much time to arrange fingerprints, “How much more time did he take with the love inside your heart?” she asked.

“No one can love like you and no one can love God like you love God,” she told them.

Explaining her own series of “yes’s,” she told the young people how she turned away from the party scene in high school, even though it cost her friends, and said “yes” to a new friend who invited her to her youth group. During Eucharistic Adoration on one of the youth group retreats, the youth minister told the teenagers to ask God about His plan for you, and she heard God ask her to love Him with the love she had been saving for a husband, and to love every child as if it was her only child.

“I said ‘yes’ and couldn’t have dreamt of being happier,” she said. “…He has an invitation for each and every one of you.”

In between the talks, pilgrims sang and danced to live music and walked around to greet each other. Anna Satory, a 16 year-old from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Mathew Boudreaux, a 15 year-old also from Atlanta, both reflected on how different the World Youth Day environment felt from being at home.

World Youth Day pilgrims sing and dance during musical performances. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“The energy is different here, said Satory, noting that at World Youth Day, they are not afraid to talk about their faith.

“At home it is weird to walk around and ask someone’s name,” said Boudreaux, noting that they often walk around with earbuds in and don’t interact with each other. But at World Youth Day, he left his phone at the hotel and is walking around meeting people and getting their signatures.

Addison Krebs, a 16 year-old from the Diocese of Fort Wayne- South Bend, Indiana, said she thinks seeing so many people come together from all over the world “shows how powerful our faith is – if it wasn’t true, why is it so widespread?”

Both Satory and Boudreaux said they wished home was more like here, and hoped to bring some of what they have experienced back with them. While many of their friends at home are choosing to attend a large megachurch, which Satory described as being similar to a concert, she said she wants to tell her friends about how “we have God there” in the Eucharist at Mass.

To conclude the day, the pilgrims gathered for Eucharistic Adoration. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, carried the monstrance around the convention center so each pilgrim could see the Body of Christ up close. The pilgrims knelt in prayer – some bowed their heads in silence, some sang along with the music, and some reached out their hands toward the Eucharist in praise.

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley leads a Eucharistic procession. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Pilgrims pray during Eucharistic adoration. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

After the Eucharistic procession, as the monstrance remained on the altar, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron gave a final talk in which he returned to the story of Jesus getting on the boat with Peter and encouraging him to put his net out into the deep water.

Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Bishop Barron said Jesus getting on Peter’s boat represents how the invasion of grace is always the primary part of the Christian spiritual life.

“The Christian spiritual life never begins with our achievements; it never begins with our excellence,” he said. “It begins with the invasion of grace.”

“Most of us spend our lives fooling around in the shallows, like children at the beach,” said Bishop Barron. But when a child gets older, “if they have a sense of adventure and of courage, they will want to venture out to the depth,” he said.

He encouraged the young people not to listen to the voice of the world, “which will lure you in a thousand ways to stay close to the shore,” but rather to allow God to guide them into the depths.

Once they accept the invasion of grace, “in its light we understand we are sinners,” he said, noting that sin is a kind of attachment, where “I take my infinite hunger for God and hook it onto something less than God,” such as wealth, money, pleasure or power. He encouraged the young people to allow God to help them purify themselves from those attachments, and noted that the final step of the Christian spiritual life is being sent on mission

“Go out into the depths. Follow the prompting of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said, assuring them that when “you find what God has planned for you, you are going to find life and life to the full.”