As pilgrims walked through the neighborhoods that surrounded the site of the closing vigil and Mass for World Youth Day in Panama City on Jan. 26, local Panamanian residents cheered them on, giving them high fives, hugs and water, and sometimes spraying them with their hose to cool them off. As one car passed the crowd, a kid held a sign out the window that said, “Bienvenidos peregrinos!” meaning, “Welcome pilgrims!”

Some pilgrims from Spain who are a part of the Neocatechumenal Way played the guitar and sang into a microphone, filling the streets with song. Other groups sang the World Youth Day theme song as they carried their sleeping bags and other overnight gear in preparation to sleep in a field.

Many people, including Harry Sadsad from Australia, remarked on how welcoming the people of Panama have been to the World Youth Day pilgrims.

“The country has just embraced the pilgrims,” he said, noting that the country of Panama is a land bridge that brings people together, and “Panama has brought the Church and the world together in these few days.”

World Youth Day pilgrim Ivon González of Mexico, center, teaches friends how to dance the Macarena while waiting for the Vigil with Pope Francis to begin. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Oratile Mesweu, a 26 year-old from Botswana, is staying with a family during her pilgrimage, and she said even though they don’t understand each other’s language, “the love is common.”

During her World Youth Day experience, Mesweu said she has learned to “open my heart.”

“Where there was hurt and bitterness, I replaced it with love,” she said.

As he waited in line to get his “pilgrim kit” of food to bring for the overnight vigil, Ron Howard, a seminarian studying to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Baltimore at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, said during World Youth Day he has “found so many people on fire…just radiating the Holy Spirit.”

“The joy pouring out of these people is amazing,” he said. “It is very hopeful… it is affirming in my call to be a seminarian and God willing, to be a priest. I am very excited to serve God’s people.”

Gloria Egbusie, who is originally from Nigeria but now lives in France, remarked how it is nice for the youth from France, where they often feel like they have to hide their faith in the secular culture, to be in an environment where it is celebrated.

“Events like this [are] a big time opportunity for them not to be ashamed of their faith,” she said.

Pilgrims greet Pope Francis as he arrives to the vigil site. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Once they arrived at the vigil site – where some of them had camped for hours before the vigil even began – some pilgrims spent their time dancing or playing cards. For the group of 171 people from Sydney, Australia, there was even more cause to celebrate, because it was Australia Day, a national holiday which celebrates the anniversary of the first fleet from Britain landing in Sydney Cove.

As one way of celebrating, the Australian pilgrims labeled each of their tents with an Australian landmark, such as “Bondi Beach” and “New Parliament.” The bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, Bishop Vincent Long, joined the pilgrims as they camped out and spent the night in the field.

As the vigil began, Pope Francis told the young people, “the salvation the Lord offers us is an invitation to be part of a love story interwoven with our personal stories; it is alive and wants to be born in our midst so that we can bear fruit just as we are, wherever we are and with everyone all around us.”

Pope Francis addresses pilgrims at the vigil. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Leading up to his address, a few young people gave testimonies about their own lives, including a married couple who talked about giving birth to a daughter with disabilities, a young man who had difficulty finding work, and a young woman who had a powerful experience at the previous World Youth Day in Krakow.

World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Eucharistic Adoration. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“The Lord’s love is greater than all our problems, frailties and flaws. Yet it is precisely through our problems, frailties and flaws that he wants to write this love story,” said Pope Francis. “He embraced the prodigal son, He embraced Peter after his denials and He always embraces us whenever we fall: He helps us to get up and get back on our feet. Because the worst fall, the fall that can ruin our lives, is to remain down and not allow ourselves to be helped up.”

The pope also encouraged young people to be a part of building and maintaining the communities that they live in.

“Through real faces, the Lord makes himself present,” he said. “To say ‘yes’ to this love story is to say ‘yes’ to becoming a means of building in our neighborhoods those ecclesial communities capable of walking the streets of our cities, embracing and weaving new relationships.”

World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Eucharistic Adoration. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

As the sun set and Adoration began, a hush fell over the once-lively crowd of about 600,000 people, and they joined the pope in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. 

Kimberly Jaramillo, a 21-year-old from the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, held a crucifix close to her heart as she prayed alongside the crowd. The priest traveling with her group, Father Ed Friel, had given her the crucifix ahead of time, and she brought it to the youth group that she volunteers with to allow the teenagers there to pray with it and give her their intentions. Her dad’s friend who has cancer also took the cross to pray with it for a day, and she brought all of those intentions with her to prayer.

“During this vigil, having [Jesus] with me…what he sacrificed for us, His love, having it close to my heart, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she said.

World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Eucharistic Adoration. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)