Hundreds of people gathered in Washington this weekend to be a part of the journey of the World Youth Day Cross as it travels to Panama for the 33rd World Youth Day celebration in January 2019.

On the Palm Sunday immediately following each World Youth Day, the cross is transferred from the youth of that year’s host country to the youth of the country hosting the next World Youth Day celebration. Since Panama is such a small country, the tour of the World Youth Day Cross prior to the upcoming World Youth Day was expanded to include Central America, the Caribbean, and five cities in the United States: Chicago, Miami, Houston, Washington, and Los Angeles.

Some participants in the daylong event in Washington traveled for hours in order to be a part of the cross’s journey.

Earyn Calvis, a 23-year-old from New Jersey, attended the most recent World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016 and said it was “something I want to experience over and over again. Anything like it is worth driving hours for.”

Over the past 30 years, the cross has visited every continent except Antarctica. It toured the United States in 1992 and 1993 prior to World Youth Day in Denver, and briefly visited the World Trade Center site in 2002.

In 2003, Pope Saint John Paul II gave the youth a replica of the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani (Latin for “Salvation of the Roman People”), which now joins the cross as it travels around the world. The original icon is located at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and Pope Francis usually begins and ends his pilgrimages by praying before the icon.

The cross’s visit to Washington began at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Panama Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta welcomed everyone to Panama for the upcoming World Youth Day.

Neida Morales, a 19-year-old who traveled to Washington from North Carolina, is planning to go to Panama for World Youth Day. She said she is looking forward to “getting closer to God, trying to figure out what’s my purpose in life” while there.

Similarly, Helen Trimble, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, Maryland, and a junior at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, said she is “hoping to have a better idea of what I want to do with my life and what my calling is.”

As the group prepared to process through several monuments in the city, Archbishop Ulloa noted how the people remembered in the memorials helped build the United States.

“These people invite us to be different,” he said. “Christ, always young, is inviting us to leave our mark that makes history in the life of others. Let us be the protagonists of this history.”

As the young people processed down the National Mall, the pain of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church was felt heavily. In the days leading up to the event, the World Youth Day Cross Leadership Team said they planned to offer the procession “in prayer for the wounded state of Christ’s Church, our city, and our world.”

In his opening remarks, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. said,  “the cross that each of us bear has been made heavier by the recent terrible revelation of decades of sexual abuse of the people of God.”

He added that survivors of abuse “should not have to suffer by carrying the cross of suffering, humiliation or shame.” He encouraged everyone to pray for those victims and to act as “instruments of God’s peace” to prevent future abuse.

Young adults from St. Dominic’s Parish in Washington, D.C., were among those who carried the cross for the first leg of the procession. The intentions for that part of the journey were for those with disabilities and also for those affected by the abuse scandal.

Christiana Gellert, one of those young adults from St. Dominic’s, said she was “grateful for the opportunity to do a tiny bit of reparation” for all of the sins committed in the Church.

“It was really humbling to carry the cross,” said Stephanie Cavan, who noted that it was difficult, but she realized, “I have 10-15 other people, but [Jesus] only had one other person.”

Amelia Castro-Mendoza said the group’s cooperation in literally carrying the cross together “is a good metaphor for how we can support each other in our own crosses” in daily life.

Once the group had processed to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout reflected on that leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he was “speaking of a dream for racial harmony…a focus on the dignity of human persons and how that dignity should be reflected in all we say and all we do.”

The cross bearers for the second leg of the procession included members of the African American and Hispanic communities, as well as Christian refugees from El Salvador, and young adults from The Catholic University of America and from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The intentions were for unity, an end to racial injustice, discrimination and violence, for refugees, and for those who have given their lives defending the country.

As he processed with the group to the Washington Monument, Justin Woodbury, a senior at Towson University near Baltimore, reflected on the gathering he was taking part in.

“It is inspiring to see everyone…gathering as one Church to one specific place; to see everyone following Christ’s footsteps, taking up their cross and giving their lives to Christ,” he said. “…It is a blessing to be a part of this.”

As the group gathered in front of the Washington Monument, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori reflected on the importance of the monument honoring the former president and commander of the Continental Army.

“George Washington and some of the nation’s founders did not live up to some of the ideals” in the Declaration of Independence, said Archbishop Lori. “They were like we are – fallible human beings with blind spots.”

Archbishop Lori said this showed, “even people who are flawed can do great things,” because this country that they started “in spite of its flaws, is still a place we strive for liberty and justice for all.”

Those freedoms, he noted, “are not guaranteed to us by the government…they are God-given human freedoms,” that the founding fathers hoped to form a government to protect and guarantee.

“All of us have to strive to use our freedoms for what is good,” he added.

Quoting Jesus when he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Archbishop Lori pointed out that as a coin bears the image of Caesar, “we bear in our hearts the image of God…we owe everything to Him.”

“When we give every day to God…we become those people who are capable of building a truly just and compassionate society,” he continued.

The cross bearers for the next leg of the procession were Hispanic immigrants and Dreamers, and the intentions were for immigrants, for greater solidarity between countries, for the safety of military personnel, and for religious freedom.

The cross made its last stop on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Castle, where Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville reflected further on the cross that Dreamers and other immigrants have to bear.

“We can say, ‘I will help you,’” Bishop Dorsonville told the youth, encouraging them to listen to Pope Francis’s call to move from a culture of indifference to a culture of solidarity.

After the procession concluded, many youth and young adults gathered at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine for an afternoon of prayer, talks, and a display of Panamanian culture.

Representatives from the Embassy of Panama shared their culture with those who stopped by their booth in the shrine, which included a small figurine of the American school buses that had been repainted with different Panamanian landscapes and flags, and used as public transport in the country until just a few years ago.

The booth also included a display of handcrafted artifacts by the indigenous tribes of the country, and a woman who was dressed in traditional clothing greeted people as they passed by.

One of the representatives from the embassy said he thinks people who go to World Youth Day will appreciate Panama’s fusion of different cultures and how happy and enthusiastic the Panamanian people are.

The afternoon included veneration of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon, praise and worship Adoration led by Steve Angrisano, an “Ask Me Anything” panel with two women religious, a Dominican priest, and a married couple; a presentation on the history of the World Youth Day Cross, and a keynote address by Sister Miriam James, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

Her talk was titled “God’s Powerful Love and Mercy: Searching for the Face of God,” in which she reflected on the power of seeing a face.

Quoting Pope Francis, she said, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” and reminded everyone that even in the midst of their failures and sufferings, “Christ gazes very tenderly upon you, my friends, and there is nothing about you He doesn’t love.”

The day concluded with a procession from the Saint John Paul II National Shrine to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a Vigil Mass celebrated by Archbishop Lori, Archbishop Ulloa and Bishop Knestout.

In his homily, Archbishop Lori first addressed the young pilgrims, saying, “You came not as tourists but as pilgrims, attentive to God’s word…with most of your life ahead of you.”

“You walked seeking to do the Lord’s will…seeking to embrace your vocation,” he continued. “All of us this evening should share the hope and the joy of our young pilgrims.”

While it would be wonderful to only come to Mass with hope and joy, Archbishop Lori noted, “many of us, myself included, celebrate this Mass with a measure of grief and anguish,” due to the sexual abuse crisis facing the Church.

In the midst of this, Archbishop Lori said comfort could be found in the day’s readings, which show that Christ loves the Church.

“When all is said and done, there is only one ultimate reason for staying [in the Church] – Christ loves the Church,” he said. “…not only in the richness of the spirituality and the saints. Christ also loves its sinners…He loves us in our sinfulness…The Church in its perpetually sinful form, that always stands in need of renewal.”

At the same time, “in her union with Christ, the Church loves us,” he continued. “We have to remember that, no matter how bad the news might be; no matter how tempted to discouragement we might become.”

In the Gospel for the day, Jesus asked the apostles if they would walk away from Him like the others, and Archbishop Lori said, “I must ask this question of myself and of you amid a time of crisis…amid a time of darkness in our Church.”

For him, the answer is that he will stay, “because the Lord loves the Church and because the Lord is present in the Eucharist,” Archbishop Lori said.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Bishop Ulloa once again addressed the young people gathered in the basilica, saying to them, “Let us be a sign in this world that is desperate; let us be an inspiration…a sign of unity in a world that is divided.”