As pilgrims lined the streets of the Cinta Costera in Panama City on Jan. 24, waiting with anticipation to see Pope Francis arrive at the welcome ceremony during World Youth Day, Natalia Ratia, a 14-year-old from Spain, said seeing Pope Francis was “a dream come true.”

“I’m impressed by seeing so many people from so many countries united for the same reason,” she said. “It is a great encouragement to be a better apostle in my country with my friends and my environment.”

Tatiana Amundsen, a graduate student studying architecture at The Catholic University of America, said she was looking forward to seeing Pope Francis because when he came to Washington, D.C. in 2015, she wasn’t spiritually ready. But this time, she has been spending the past week focused on prayer, and said she feels more prepared.

Elena Martín, a graduate student at the Saint John Paul II Institute, said she was “very interested in seeing the message the pope has prepared for young people,” and imagined he would be speaking about the theme of holiness. Reflecting on that theme, she said, has made her want to try to be an apostle to her friends. 

“I have the desire of inviting my friends to go deeper in faith,” she said.

María Pía Mecklemburg, a 25 year-old parishioner of Misión San Andrés in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she feels Pope Francis “is so connected to Jesus,” and appreciates that all of his messages, even difficult ones, are given with love.

Kreshane Sloley, a 25 year-old from Jamaica, said he appreciated how Pope Francis is “trying to unite the world,” by meeting with leaders from other religions.

“That is something that I like about him, and that is something that us as young people must strive [for], to ensure that everyone is together in unity,” he said.

Young people greet the Holy Father as he arrives at the World Youth Day welcoming ceremony in Panama City. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

As Pope Francis moved toward the stage for the welcome ceremony, he held hands with Panamanian youth and walked through a replica of the locks of the Panama Canal. After Panama Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa welcomed Pope Francis, youth from each continent processed in with flags to greet the pope.

A pair of young Panamanians dressed in the country’s traditional clothing presented Pope Francis with a gift – a stole made of “mola,” which is an artisanal textile of the Guna people of Panama.

Pope Francis greeted the young people warmly, and recalled how during the last World Youth Day in Krakow, “several people asked me if I was going to be in Panama, and I told them: ‘I don’t know, but certainly Peter will be there. Peter is going to be there.’”

“Today, I am happy to say to you: Peter is with you, to celebrate and renew you in faith and hope,” he said.

Pope Francis said he did not wish to create “a parallel Church” in World Youth Day, but rather to “rediscover and reawaken the Church’s constant freshness and youth.”

He also acknowledged the difficulty and sacrifices involved with attending World Youth Day, and applauded the pilgrims for their perseverance.

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

“A disciple is not merely someone who arrives at a certain place, but one who sets out decisively, who is not afraid to take risks and keeps walking. This is the great joy: to keep walking,” he told the young people. “You have not been afraid to take risks and to keep journeying. Today we were all able to get here because for some time now, in our various communities, we have all been on the road together.”

Pope Francis told the youth that through their willingness to come together and be united with people from different cultures, “you have become true teachers and builders of the culture of encounter.”

 “You teach us that encountering one another does not mean having to look alike, or think the same way or do the same things,” he said. “…No, not at all. The culture of encounter is a call inviting us to dare to keep alive a shared dream.”

That dream is concrete and is called, “Jesus,” Pope Francis said, asking the young people to repeat the name of their shared dream back to him. When the pope said he could not hear them, they yelled even more enthusiastically “Jesus!”

He encouraged the pilgrims to pursue the dream for which Jesus gave His life by “loving with the same love with which he loved us.”

“What keeps us united? Why are we united? What prompts us to encounter each other?” the pope said. “The certainty of knowing that we have been loved with a profound love that we neither can nor want to keep quiet about – a love that challenges us to respond in the same way: with love.”

After Pope Francis had departed from the crowd, the energy and excitement remained as pilgrims danced and sang as the sun went down. Throughout the evening, chants of “Está es la juventud del papa” (this is the pope's youth) could be heard in the streets.

Pilgrims from Poland cheer as the pope departs. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Gabriel Ntitebem, a parishioner of St. Matthias the Apostle Parish in Lanham, Maryland, got to see Pope Francis up close as he drove through the crowd, and afterward reflected on how he likes Pope Francis because, “he is not bland or boring. He is a very lively person.”

“He is not as young as the people here, but he is able to keep up the energy,” he said. “He is very connected to the youth.”

Alexandria Fatta, a 20-year-old from Jamaica, said, “I just feel that he loves the youth so much,” pointing out the recent Synod as an example of how Pope Francis listened to what young people had to say about the Church.

“That is so important to me because especially in Jamaica, our Church doesn’t really listen to youth that much…they don’t really care what we have to say, so for the pope – the ‘big man’ himself, as we would say in Jamaica – for him to care, it means a lot to us,” she said.