I was assigned to a catechesis in Spanish on the outskirts of Panamá City. A good number of American bishops are always recruited for English Catechesis. It has been an honor for me to do so in the past. For the first time, a group of us from the United States were asked to provide catechesis in Spanish.
Typical for many cities in the developing world, the parish where I was assigned was located in an improvised neighborhood. Those who initially moved in were called “paraquidistas” (parachuters), implying that people fell from the skies and started building homes. After awhile, the government authorities relent and provide infrastructure as an afterthought. This was the origins of the community where I met a group of pilgrims, young people from different countries across Latin America.
About half-a-mile before arriving we left behind smooth paved roads and bumped along a patchwork of concrete, asphalt, and gravel pavements. The neighborhood was working class, chaotic, and eclectic. Each house showed the ingenuity of the poor, working with what was available. Despite their limited means, they were quite proud of their accomplishments as a community. They were particularly proud of the role played by their parish in helping the community develop into a vibrant neighborhood. Not far from the neighborhood, a massive extension project of the urban metro system was under construction that would both symbolize and enable the community’s connection with the rest of the city.
This poor, struggling parish amazed me with their eager generosity. The parish families were organized to receive pilgrims. Besides the restless rustle of the pilgrims, the parish church was filled with a cheerful buzz of helpful hands and lively music.
The catechetical session closed with Mass. I savored the exhilarating atmosphere of faith and fellowship eager to follow Jesus.
Later in the day, we all convened again at the Field of Our Lady of Antigua to participate in the welcoming ceremony for the Holy Father, Pope Francis. It was a beautiful evening, as the late afternoon rays of the sun relented and a brisk ocean breeze swept through the crowd. Before the arrival of the Pope, one of the young animators from Panamá shared a brief conversation she had with the Holy Father at the last World Youth Day (WYD) in Krakow, Poland when the announcement had just been made that her country would host the next WYD. She anxiously asked the elderly pontiff, “Will you be there with us?” He smiled speaking softly, “I don’t know, but Peter will be there.”
That the young woman cherished this brief but memorable encounter, conveyed her own understanding of the Pope’s humble reply. That she chose to share this sweet memory before the arrival of the Holy Father eloquently expressed what his Petrine ministry means for the Church. Her tender anecdote also communicated in a heartfelt way the attraction of Pope Francis for the youth.
At one point during the ceremony brigades of youth carried flags representing all the nations of the world. With a strong ocean breeze all the flags were unfurled, flapping noisily. The flag bearers had to wrestle them close while keeping their balance. It was a breathtaking sight to behold. Each flag not only identified a nation. The colorful spectacle also had a sober message. It spoke of history, conflicts, wars, borders, national pride, aspirations, and antagonists. While the symbols rippled with both hopes and worries, the youthful gathering where these standards have been carried affirmed a pervading human longing for solidarity, for communion.
The See of Peter is both a symbol and an instrument of the Lord’s own yearning, “That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (Jn. 17.21)
Pope Francis is aware of the ministry he has humbly assumed to unite minds and hearts in conformity with the Lord Jesus. This is not, nor has it ever been, a easy task. Together with the bishops from around the world, the Pope is both the sign and the instrument of the Church unifying and sanctifying mission. In the roaring, fervent reception given to the soft-spoken but ardent successor of Peter, the youth expressed their own longing for such a sign and instrument in the turbulent times in which we now live.