Last night, Catholic Youth from around the world inaugurated World Youth Day (WYD) with an opening Mass presided by the Archbishop of Panamá City, José Domingo Ulloa. The Cinta Costera, the main avenue along the beach, was closed off. This allowed the organizers to create an improvised elongated gathering space from a patchwork of green parks and pavement.
I arrived with a bus load of bishops. We were ushered through the requisite security clearance and brought into the staging area behind the sanctuary. One of the many blessings of the WYD gathering is the opportunity to meet my brother bishops from around the world. It is a delight to see familiar faces from previous episcopal or pontifical events. The fraternal setting also provides the occasion for new introductions even with the clumsiness of language barriers. Knowing both Spanish and English helps get beyond names and locations of diocese. In one way or another we fumble fraternally along.
The global complexions of the apostolic tradition are breathtaking. The mutual delight in being with each other is palpable. While we all understand the Universal nature of the Church, it is still surprisingly stunning to see it and be a part of it.
The routine for most WYDs is to bring the bishops early to the events. This procedure is accepted with resignation as “hurry-up and wait”. The vesting area crowded quickly. After vesting and with plenty of time to spare, I meandered outside then up onto the sanctuary for Mass. This provided time to savor the energy of the growing multitude of youth as they worked their way through security checkpoints into the gathering area.
Looking out from the sanctuary, raised high over the cordoned space, I marveled at the field of swirling colors and unleashed exuberance. The waves of colors came from flags, banners, shirts, scarves, different religious habits, and the people themselves. A boisterous group of musicians and singers provided a great deal of the soundtrack but there was a lot more going on. Jumbotron screens revealed different emotions and activities as cameras from elevated booms as well as helicopters constantly panned the crowds. These often were momentary epiphanies, reminders that this was more than an anonymous crowd or mob; it was a assembly of the restless faithful. The cameras provided a glimmer of a personal testimonies. Sometimes the youth waved back. Another would hit his companion to look up to see oneself on the screen. In other cases, a prayer, a song, silent reading, a hug were caught unaware that their moment became a hopeful witness for others.
The Mass began about 45 minutes late. Part of the reason, off the side of the stage I could see the pathway leading into the area for Mass. It was a river of youth still streaming into the celebration even as the Mass began.
I was seated with a group of my brother bishops from the United States. We came in together and wanted to make sure we left together. We thought it had good seats, center stage, clear view of the altar and pulpit. So we thought until the the music began. We were seated right in front of a speaker. With little exaggeration, I can say that we felt every word and note during the celebration.
Kidding aside, it was a beautiful liturgy offered in honor of Mary, Our Lady of Antigua, the patroness of Panamá. Archbishop Ulloa remarked that this was the first occasion that the inspiration of the Virgin Mary was the primary theme of WYD, “I am the Servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your Word.” (Lk. 1.38) He compared the enthusiasm and energy of the young virgin of Nazareth to the enthusiastic, restless youth. Like Mary, only in God will they find their fulfillment of their desires and only in serving God will they find their joy.
During these days of WYD, may the youthful image of the Virgin Mary be an inspiration and companion for the young people gathered in Panamá as well as for all of us. Through her intercession, may all the Church share in the prayer and fellowship of these sacred and festive days.
Read Bishop Soto's dispatches from World Youth Day: Day 1 - Day 2 - Day 3 - Day 4 - Day 5 - Day 6 - Day 7