AS young Catholics from across Australia arrive in Central America en route to World Youth Day in Panama, some have spoken of an emotional homecoming – their families fled strife-torn Central America decades ago, and this is their first chance to return.
Other pilgrims have spoken of their hopes for coming face-to-face with Pope Francis and having a faith encounter amidst pilgrims from across the world.
For Sandra Pena, a 31-year-old Brisbane Catholic and a member of the city’s Neocatechumenal Way community, making her sixth WYD pilgrimage, this trip was “a dramatic moment” in her life.
Her family fled strife-torn El Salvador when she was four years old.
“My roots are in Central America and I have never been here before,” Ms Pena, who speaks fluent Spanish and is an experienced medical receptionist, said.
Several of her fellow young pilgrims are from families who fled El Salvador and have made a new life in Australia.
“I’m really looking forward to having an encounter with Christ because in this year I really feel like I’ve gone away from God, kind of lost my way,” Daniel Urbina, also making a pilgrimage with Brisbane’s Neocatechumenal community, said.
“I am hoping that God will speak to me and help me to find my direction by coming here.”
The World Youth Day gathering in Panama City, which opened on Tuesday and continues until today (January 27), will be the first time the event, first instituted by St John Paul II in 1985, will be held in Central America and likely the only opportunity for many of the region’s young adults and teenagers to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, who arrived in Panama on Wednesday (January 23).
Ahead of arriving in Panama City, Mr Urbina, is travelling with Australia’s Neocatechumenal communities, first through Mexico and Costa Rica.
In Mexico the young pilgrims billeted with Catholic families in the city of Puebla, and visited the hilltop Our Lady of Miracles Church built over the top of an Aztec pyramid, and the archaeological wonder of Teotihuacan, the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Many of the young Catholics have attended past World Youth Days and have found it a life-changing experience.
“In Poland (WYD 2016) I really found the mercy of God and that Christ loved me,” Mr Urbina said.
“It was a great experience and I hope to have another experience like that.
“What really stuck out to me in Poland was the communion that we had with young people there.
“We got to meet a lot of people from other countries, and to see the joy people had, welcoming us to share the faith with other young people.
“It was really beautiful … in Australia, many times I feel alone following my faith – but there I saw a whole generation of young people who want to follow Christ.
“To me that was a really great experience to have.”
Australian pilgrims have experienced a few discomforts – ranging from lack of sleep, trials with bus schedules and diarrhoea – but they have also learnt of the far greater challenges faced by young Central Americans wanting to make their way to Panama City.
Nicaragua has been dealing with political and economic upheaval, some of it involving violent clashes with government forces that have plagued the Central American nation since last year.
“Some of the young Nicaraguans heading to (World Youth Day) have made extraordinary economic sacrifices, selling things, begging institutions for help, because it’s a unique opportunity,” 25-year-old Nicaraguan journalist Israel Gonzalez Espinoza told Catholic News Service.
Past World Youth Day gatherings have taken place in Spain, Poland, Brazil, the Philippines, the United States and other countries that have been cost-prohibitive to Central American youth, many who are now excited about their physical proximity to the upcoming celebration.
Nicaragua’s deteriorating economic and political situation, was expected to impact on pilgrims from Central American nations such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, travelling by land through Nicaragua.
Mr Gonzalez said he had heard that Panama had been in talks with officials in the country to expedite a safe passage of pilgrims travelling through and returning through Nicaragua before and after World Youth Day.
Ms Pena said her only disappointment leading up to this WYD was that she wanted to share it with more young Catholics from Central America.
Despite the tensions, another Brisbane pilgrim Gustavo Mendez, whose parents also left El Salvador for Australia, was keen to experience the mass gathering of young Catholics in Panama City.
He also attended WYD in Poland and found it a life-changing experience.
“I encountered Christ – not only in the words (spoken by Pope Francis), but in the people,” Mr Mendez said.
“Seeing the three million people united in Poland – that’s where I felt the presence of Christ, because I saw together we could be the image of Christ.
“And that left a grand impression in me.
“I wanted to see in this pilgrimage in Panama that I could have the exact same encounter – not only seeing Christ in the sacraments and confession but also meeting Christ in the people, and more importantly meeting Christ in my own life.”