Though much of Panama was hit with a power outage on Jan. 20, shutting down the entire subway system in Panama City, energy still ran through the streets in the form of World Youth Day pilgrims waving flags, singing and praying together.

The official events of World Youth Day do not begin until Tuesday, but many pilgrims already began to experience Panama by wandering the streets of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s historic old city that includes colonial-era buildings and several Catholic Churches.

A pilgrim from Panama City waves a flag in front of Iglesia La Merced in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City Jan. 20. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

As she walked down the street, 22-year-old Daisy Albarado from El Paso, Texas, who recently graduated college, said she sees her experience of World Youth Day as a “thank you pilgrimage” to thank God for the blessings he has given her. Soon, she plans to begin to study for her doctorate in occupational therapy.

Inside of Iglesia San Francisco de Asís, a group of youth from around the world who are all affiliated with the Secular Franciscan Order, gathered to celebrate Sunday Mass. They came from Latin America, Canada, Europe, Vietnam, and the United States – including one young adult from Frederick, Maryland.

Pilgrims affiliated with the Secular Franciscan Order pray during Sunday Mass Jan. 20 inside of Iglesia San Francisco de Asís in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Cristo Mochi, a 22 year-old pilgrim who attends St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Libertytown, Maryland, is attending his second World Youth Day with JuFra, the community of Franciscan youth. He said he has enjoyed meeting new people from other countries, and loves “feeling like you can connect with someone, even if they don’t speak English and just want to take a picture.”

“You can feel the love in the air,” he said.

During the Mass, Mochi said he was struck by how the priest invited everyone to pray the Our Father in their own language, and although it made the prayer difficult to understand, he felt it was nice to see the commonality that they all shared.

Mary Mullan, a member of the group who is from New York, and Courtney Callanan, a youth minister from Massachusetts, both said they were hoping for “renewed spirits” as a result of attending World Youth Day. Callanan said as they have been getting to know the other members of their group from different countries, they have been discovering some differences, but also have noticed that “the joys and challenges that come with being Catholic are fairly universal.”

Mary Mullan (center) and Courtney Callanan (right) pray during a Mass Jan. 20 at the Iglesia San Francisco de Asís in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

About 150,000 pilgrims from around the world are expected to attend World Youth Day in Panama City, and according to Panamanian authorities, 27,037 pilgrims and volunteers have already entered the country since January 9. So far, the countries with the most pilgrims already in Panama are Colombia, Poland, Brazil, the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Among those pilgrims are 21 people from the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, who arrived on Jan. 19, and three youth who are traveling with the Archdiocese of Washington group, who arrived Jan. 20.

Justin Lizama, a 17-year-old parishioner of St. Raphael Church in Rockville, Maryland, said his first impressions of Panama “made me a little bit more humble,” as he saw how it is a poorer country that is trying to rebuild. He added that it gave him a greater appreciation for his home, and “for my family and what they do.”

Gabriel Ntitebem, a 16-year-old parishioner of St. Matthias the Apostle Parish in Lanham, Maryland, said he was struck by seeing “a lot of people my skin tone speaking Spanish,” because at home most people who speak Spanish have lighter skin tones. In Panama, there is a large Afro-Panamanian community descended from slaves who were brought to the country during the colonial period.

Archdiocese of Washington pilgrims Justin Lizama, Princess Nwadije and Gabriel Ntitebem pause for a photo Jan. 20 in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

But some World Youth Day pilgrims did not have to travel far to make it to the celebration. Yeinis Carrillo, a 17 year-old who lives to the west of Panama City in Arraijan, recently graduated high school and said she had planned to spend her summer like most teenagers – playing and hanging out – but her friends convinced her to give World Youth Day a try.

They told her, “If you follow Jesus, you will be happy,” and though she doesn’t believe everything about the Catholic faith, she said she “decided I need to be open to the opportunity to meet new people, other cultures, and to see how they see God.”

According to Carrillo, who was gathered outside of Iglesia La Merced in Casco Viejo with a group of other Panamanian youth, seeing people from all over the world come to Panama is “amazing knowing that you are not [alone]…there are people all over the world who want to know you, who want to know your language, know your culture, know how you feel and how you live your life."

At left, 17 year-old Yeinis Carrillo poses with a Panamanian flag. At right, a group of pilgrims from Panama stops for photos on the steps of Iglesia La Merced in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City Jan. 20. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)