During the opening Mass for the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama City, Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, the metropolitan archbishop of Panama, said his country welcomed the pilgrims from all over the world “with an open heart and arms wide open.”

“We are immensely joyful because of your presence,” he told the 75,000 pilgrims gathered for the Jan. 22 Mass.

Leading up to the Mass, pilgrims waved their flags, chanted their countries' names, and took pictures with each other. A couple of seminarians from Argentina, including Emanuel Villalba, played the guitar and sang, as pilgrims who were standing around them joined in with clapping and dancing.

“The people here [in Panama] are amazing,” said Villalba. “People from here have so much love.”

World Youth Day pilgrims attend the opening Mass. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Archbishop Ulloa thanked Pope Francis for allowing this World Youth Day to be a celebration for the people on the peripheries. Prior to the main World Youth Day gathering, there were specific gatherings for indigenous youth and youth of African descent, which Archbishop Ulloa said is significant because “for the first time, they have a specific space.”

“We hope that it will be a balm for the difficult situation in which many of them live in without hope, especially the indigenous youth and youth of African descent, the youth who migrates after receiving almost no response from their countries of origin, that send them to find their hope in other countries, exposing them to drug trafficking, human trafficking, crime, and many other social evils,” said Archbishop Ulloa.

The archbishop also spoke about how young people need adult witnesses to teach, direct, and most of all to listen to them, which he said has been a need since the time of Jesus.

(CS photos/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

We know that just as in Jesus’ times, young people search for witnesses, references filled with content and experience, who have walked the path by foot, with mileage, and not an intellectualized or thought-up God,” he said. “You search for someone to show you God with their life and not someone who (just) speaks of God.”

While young people need this accompaniment, Archbishop Ulloa also said the Church is waiting for a “young springtime,” where young people are the agents of change in the Church and in the world.

“We believe in you, we have a lot of hope in you, because we are totally convinced that the true protagonists for the change and transformation that humanity and the Church requires are in your hands, in your abilities, in your vision of a better world,” he told the young people.

Already, during the organization of World Youth Day, the Church has seen the witness of young people who gave their talent and leadership to help make the gathering possible, he said. Quoting Pope Francis, he reminded young people that being a saint “is not a myth,” but rather “a tangible reality.”

Noting the examples of some of the patron saints of World Youth Day – such as St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima and St. Juan Diego – Bishop Ulloa said they show that “a life of holiness is possible in every culture and ethnic group, without distinction of gender, nor age.”

The World Youth Day opening Mass was celebrated by Panama Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The crowd for the Mass included saints-in-the-making from about 150 countries around the world, many of whom were holding flags that flapped in the breeze as they stood on the Cinta Costera, or “Coastal Beltway,” in downtown Panama City. Some pilgrims came from countries, like Panama, where most of the population is Catholic, and some from countries like Japan, where the country is less than one percent Catholic.

An estimated 75,000 pilgrims attended the opening Mass. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“It is amazing being around so many Christians because we are a minority in Japan,” said Kiko Takahashi, a 27-year-old Catholic journalist from Tokyo.

Avari Chung, who was also with the group of about 60 people from Japan, said although the Catholic population is not very large, they still find tight faith communities in their parishes that help them to keep their faith.

Soyoka Toyota and Honomi Toyota, both from Japan, pray during the opening Mass for World Youth Day. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“If you go to church there is quite a community,” she said.

Ibrahim Handal, a 28 year-old from Bethlehem, also pointed out that Catholics are a minority there, since most people living in Palestine are Muslim. He said he is excited that so many people want to meet them and take pictures with them, so they could teach other pilgrims more about the Holy Land, which he said is amazing, even though they have political problems that are causing many people to flee the country.

“We live a simple life,” he said, noting that Bethlehem is a quiet, older city, nothing like the high rises that he was surrounded by in Panama City. He also noted how special Christmas is when celebrated in Bethlehem – the place where the Christian faith all began.

“I’m excited that we are here from all over the world to be united in prayer,” he said.

Micaela De Gouveia, a 16-year-old from Johannesburg, South Africa, wore her country's flag around her shoulders, and explained that the mix of colors symbolizes unity in diversity. Although their country was split during apartheid, a time of institutionalized racial segregation, she said they now celebrate their diversity.

“Now, we are not perfect, but our country is growing and trying to come together,” she said.

Their whole group wore T-shirts that featured Pope Francis waiving a South African flag and saying the word “Ubuntu,” which means “unity.” 

De Gouveia said the group fund-raised for two and a half years to have enough money to take this trip, so “for us to finally get here has been an achievement like no other." She added that she is looking forward to experiencing the faith with thousands of other people “who have the same faith and want to grow in the same way you do.”

Many pilgrims, such as Joseph Rice, a teenager from the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, stopped in the midst of the crowd to trade items with each other. He was distributing prayer cards for the canonization of Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin priest whom his grandmother knew personally.

Rice said the priest inspires him because “people thought he was the lowest of the low…[but] God has something for all of us to do no matter who we are or where we come from.”

As he looks forward to the rest of World Youth Day, Rice said, “I just want to find a new sense of true Christian joy…and to spread the joy and happiness of the Church of America to the rest of the world.”

A young couple prays together after receiving communion. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)