Hardships, encounters with Christ abound at World Youth Day

| February 15, 2019 | 0 Comments

Front row, from left, Josue Jimenez, Maria Sinchi and Lesly Gonzalez-Barragan join other pilgrims from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at World Youth Day in Panama. Behind them are, from left, Maibel Aguilar, Maria Guadalupe Garcia Urzua, Andrea Lezama and Jessica Ortiz. All are part of a Latino group for young adults in the archdiocese.  COURTESY FATHER MICHAEL DALY

Christine Lam went to Panama in January for World Youth Day to “light that fire” within her heart.

The moment came during eucharistic adoration at one of the sessions. Her eyes were riveted on the monstrance as it was carried around the auditorium.

“I just remember feeling my heart was just so full,” said Lam, 24, a member of St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien in Minneapolis, who traveled with a group from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I was so overwhelmed with emotion and with love that I started to cry.”

A youth leader at her parish, she was there to deepen her faith and bring back something she could share with younger parishioners. She had never gone to World Youth Day before, and making the pilgrimage was on her “bucket list.”

She and around 80 other pilgrims in the archdiocese quickly learned that hardships and suffering would be their constant companions during the event, which went from Jan. 22-27 in Panama City. Walking long distances in tropical heat, battling large crowds, and sleeping on hard ground were among the challenges pilgrims and chaperones faced.

But, in the midst of it all, there were deep encounters with Christ.

“The thing that I saw was, no matter where the kids [ages 16-35] came from spiritually … wherever they were on their journey to Christ, the openness to meeting him in Panama was such a beautiful grace,” said Jean Stolpestad, director of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life, who led a group of 28 pilgrims and chaperones. “And, I saw Christ respond to that openness.”

For some, the hardships began two days beforehand. Vincenzo Randazzo of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis led another archdiocesan group, with 23 Latinos in the group of 25. They flew to Costa Rica, then drove the rest of the way to Panama City.

“It should have been 12, 14 hours, but it ended up being 21 hours,” Randazzo said. “At the border between Costa Rica and Panama, we ended up having to wait five hours. There were so many buses going there for World Youth Day from Mexico and Nicaragua and El Salvador and Honduras … that the process [of entering the country] was just totally backed up.”

But, he thought it was “good for everybody” because they got a chance to see so many pilgrims from other Central American countries, and they got a sense of what it meant for them to have Pope Francis visit a Central American country.

Once in Panama, they experienced full immersion in the culture. They stayed with local families, and everyone found lodging in the same neighborhood, which Randazzo thought was helpful and meaningful.

“Everybody, without any exception, just fell in love with their host family,” he said.

For one member of the group, Josh Munoz, 26, of St. Stephen in Minneapolis, spending time with a local family underscored one important outcome of his experience: meeting Catholics beyond his parish.

As it got closer to World Youth Day, “I just kept hearing more about the universality of the Church,” he said. “That’s what got me excited. That’s why I really wanted to go because I just wanted more.”

He said that before the event, he was questioning his faith, but since returning, “it’s 100 times better.” What will stay with him was seeing Pope Francis in person. The first day the pope arrived, the streets were lined with pilgrims hoping for a glimpse. Munoz crawled up onto a small ledge that raised him just high enough to see above the crowds.

“I watched him go by, and I looked behind me and I just saw all the flags of all the nations in the Church,” he said. “It just felt amazing … when I saw the pope and I saw everyone. It felt like the whole world was with me. And, that’s the team I want to be on.”

The last evening of World Youth Day featured a gathering several miles outside of Panama City in a large field. Praise and worship music was followed by eucharistic adoration. There were no lights and no candles. All was dark except for people turning on their phones to light the way for a statue of Mary that was carried through the crowd.

Yen Fasano, Lam’s cousin and a chaperone on the trip for several members of St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien, said she grew closer to Mary during the pilgrimage.

“There was always a block to my relationship with Mary, but I sincerely wanted to draw near to her,” Fasano wrote in an email to The Catholic Spirit. “She held me close on this pilgrimage, and her affection for me was amplified by the women I encountered on our trip. The humility and strength, coupled with tenderness and charity, was constant, and I surely took advantage of embracing them with gratitude for allowing Mary to be glorified in them without reserve and without judgment. With clarity, it was Our Lady that called me down to Panama.”

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