Young Texans greet Pope Francis at World Youth Day as Houston celebrations coincide with events in Panama

February 12, 2019

The Houston group Encuentros de Promoción Juvenil, bearing Texas and U.S. flags, traveled to Panama City, Panama to celebrate World Youth Day with pilgrims from around the world. Photo courtesy of Brenda J. Banegas.

PANAMA CITY — Dozens of youth and young adults from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston trekked to Panama City, Panama in Central America, joining a quarter of a million Catholics and the Holy Father Pope Francis to celebrate World Youth Day (WYD) Jan. 22 to Jan. 27.

In his opening message, Pope Francis greeted the throngs of young people: “How good it is to get together again, this time in a land that receives us with such radiance and warmth! As we gather in Panama, WYD is once more a celebration of joy and hope for the whole Church and, for the world, a witness of faith.”

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo joined the thousands of young people, celebrating a catechetical Mass on Friday, Jan. 25 with English-speaking pilgrims, as well as attending the Via Crucis event with the Holy Father that evening.

The theme for the 34th World Youth Day 2019 was, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38).

Pope Francis reflected on this passage throughout the week, encouraging the young people to be like Mary, and say yes to the Lord and his calling.

At the Way of the Cross, Pope Francis said the path walked by Jesus to his passion and death on the cross is the same path of indifference and marginalization taken by those who suffer in the world today.

Addressing young men and women participating in the Way of the Cross at WYD Jan. 25, the pope said the road to Calvary is “a way of suffering and solitude” that is “prolonged in a society that has lost the ability to weep and to be moved by suffering.”

Jesus “walks and suffers in all those faces hurt by the complacent and anesthetizing indifference of our society that consumes and is consumed, that ignores and is ignorant, blind to the pain of our brothers and sisters,” he said.

While the youthful participants expressed their joy with cheers when Pope Francis arrived, prayerful silence overcame the thousands of young people gathered as the solemn celebration began.

Groups of pilgrims from different countries took turns carrying the WYD cross throughout the stage at every station. Each significant event of Jesus’ crucifixion was linked to a current theme or issue affecting young people, particularly in Latin America.

Brenda J. Banegas, communications coordinator Donald S. Nesti, CSSp, Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, traveled to WYD with Encuentros de Promoción Juvenil. After a brief stop in Costa Rica, the group stayed with a host family in Panama.

“For me this is the best way to live WYD because you get to learn so much from the locals. They are so welcoming,” she said. “I loved that it was not only Catholic families that were receiving pilgrims in their homes... a couple of the girls in my group stayed with an Evangelical family. We saw signs from synagogues and Muslim communities that were welcoming pilgrims.”

Banegas said it was obvious that the entire Panamanian community was excited about WYD.
“From the moment we crossed the border into Panama all we saw was pure joy. Border patrol officers asked to take pictures with us, people that saw us on the streets yelled ‘Welcome to Panama!’” she said. “People in cars honked to greet pilgrims. Muslim communities gave out water on the streets, vendors gave away popcorn and coffee as we made our way to the main events. At the main events we gathered around the fences to get a chance to see Pope Francis up close and spoke with police officers that were on duty; they too were so excited to see him.”

Banegas said she and the group enjoyed their time in Panama. For her, her favorite moments included hearing Pope Francis speaking in Spanish and the Way of the Cross.

“The highlight has to be the moment of Eucharistic Adoration at the Vigil on Saturday,” she said. “When that moment came I just remember saying ‘Wow.’ It was so beautiful.”

Although Mary would not be considered an “influencer,” like many social media personalities, she still became the most influential woman in history by trusting “in the love and promises of God, the only force capable of making all things new,” Pope Francis told young people like Banegas at the vigil Jan. 26.

“Are you willing to be an ‘influencer’ like Mary, who dared to say, ‘Let it be done’?” he asked. “Only love makes us more human and fulfilled; everything else is a pleasant but useless placebo.”

Despite sweltering temperatures in Panama City, hundreds of thousands of young men and women made their way to St. John Paul II Field on the penultimate day of World Youth Day.

They brought sleeping bags and tents, prepared to spend the night at the field — praying the rosary, making new friends — before celebrating Mass with Pope Francis at 8 a.m. Jan. 27. The pope did not spend the night, but returned later in the evening to the apostolic nunciature.

Arriving in his popemobile, Pope Francis made his way through a sea of colorful flags and banners people waved excitedly. After the pope took his place on the stage, young adults from Panama and the Palestinian territories gave their experiences of finding faith and hope amid doubt, sickness and addiction.

Banegas said participating in World Youth Day definitely strengthened her faith.

“It was a reminder to appreciate the little things in life and to value the people around me,” she said. “I hope to share what I lived in Panama by being a better version of myself, trying to be the change we all hope to see in this world, sharing more love.”

While Banegas and the rest of the WYD pilgrims celebrated in Panama, the Archdiocese held concurrent celebrations locally at St. Jerome Catholic Church.

Hosted by the Office of Young Adults and Campus Ministry, the two-day event included relics of several saints, English and Spanish workshops, multicultural music, overnight exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Mass and Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Gabriela Karaszewski, director of the Office of Young Adults and Campus Ministry, said 450 attended the event held Jan. 26 to 27.

“Seventy-five parishes were represented and young adults born in 23 different countries were present,” she said.

WYD 2020 in Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal will open its doors to the world’s young people in 2022 for the next WYD. The announcement was made by Kevin Cardinal Farrell, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, at the final Mass of WYD Jan. 27.

Upon hearing the location of the next celebration, hundreds of thousands of young people in St. John Paul II Park attending the Mass erupted in cheers and applause.

Young pilgrims from Panama bearing the World Youth Day cross handed it to their Portuguese peers, raising it for the crowd to see. In the early morning hours, pilgrims were awakened by sounds of upbeat music as the hot Panamanian sun rose. Despite the heat, the pilgrims danced and sang along, awaiting Pope Francis’ arrival.

In his homily, Pope Francis encouraged young Catholics to be engaged in the world today to ensure a better tomorrow. 

— Catholic News Service contributed to this story.