On Saturday, the pilgrims journeyed out to “Metro Park”, a large area between the City and the airport prepared for the Vigil and Mass of Sending on Sunday morning. I offered Mass together with the Sacramento delegation in the morning. They traveled out to the site some time around noon. I joined the other bishops on a bus at about two in the afternoon.
Over the course of different World Youth Day (WYD) events, the security provided the Holy Father has gotten stiffer. This has added to the “hurry-up-and-wait” routine prior to each gathering with the Pope. In Panama this meant being bussed to a separate site — a Catholic school — where our credentials were reviewed and our bags checked. We were then put on another bus that took us to the event location.
Arriving around 4PM limited the time spent exposed to the bright tropical sun. For that reason, pilgrim groups were not anxious to get out to the site. Normally, every WYD there was a rush to get to the vigil location and secure a spot. I noticed that most groups chose to delay their arrival and conserve on sun screen.
Arriving days earlier before the WYD activities began, I got an early glimpse of Metro Park. It was barren except for scattered Jumbotron screens, light posts, towers of scaffolding for stages, lights, and media. The taxi driver confirmed my assumption — as we passed by — that it was the site of the vigil and closing Mass.
As the bus arrived on Saturday afternoon, an enlivened Metro Park came into view. It had become a vibrant camp: flags waving everywhere, arriving pilgrims with backpacks scouting out their assigned location. Some of the more experienced groups had canopies, nylon sleeping tents, and other such modern accommodations to mitigate the strain of an overnight vigil. The large blank screens from a week ago were now pulsating with the activities taking place on the main stage, random camera shots of pilgrims, and sweeping panoramas of the growing, restless Catholic camp.
There was a gathering area for the bishops backstage but most of us were eager to get up on the platform where we could take in the view and watch the elevating emotions of youthful throng as they awaited the Holy Father’s arrival.
Sunday morning would serve as the culmination of WYD with the offering of the Mass and the sending forth of the youthful Church to the diverse communities from which they came. The vigil has become more than an overnight camping experience. The global dimension of the gathering melds into a community of disciples gathered around the the Lord Jesus. Just as the gospel narratives described Jesus often gathering his disciples for teaching and fellowship, his shepherd’s voice was doing so again in Panamá. The vigil was a collage of drama, testimonies, dance, and papal reflections. All this prepared the young disciples to be with the Lord, to watch with the Lord, during a holy moment of Eucharistic Adoration.
Those who would question the youthful appetite for watchful, silent prayer, were given a response by the hushed spectacle of a half-million young disciples immersing themselves in the quiet pool of the Lord’s mercy. Though separated by time and geography, the evening’s amazing sacramental encounter was no less real than the moments the Lord Jesus sat down among his disciples on the seashore, on the road to Jerusalem, or in the upper room on the night before he died. In many ways, the gathering, cooled by soft ocean breezes, was even more than those first moments Peter, Andrew, James, and John shared with the Lord. The young disciples in Panamá were benefiting from a history of such sacred encounters. Their faith is strengthen by a tried and tested tradition of apostolic faith that has grown in confident reliance for those tender words spoken long ago: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11.28)