This reflection was published by Sr Paula Volchek CSFN for the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth Holy Spirit Province Australia website.
The Pilgrimage to Panama: this year I had the big privilege of participating in the pilgrimage to Panama for World Youth Day 2019 (WYD19) through Mexico.
First week we stayed in Mexico, where we spread our mission. It was truly an unforgettable experience. I was most touched by the vulnerable elderly in an aged care facility provided by Caritas Mexico. Facing great challenges, the staff attended to the needs of the residents, many of whom were homeless or rejected by their families.
I came expecting to serve food and minister to them, but I was the one nourished by the experience. Despite language barriers I was able to witness an authentic expression of the love of Jesus. Seeing the residents’ faces light up when we prayed and played together was truly memorable.
In the words of St Mother Teresa of Calcutta, ‘Peace begins with a smile.’ I am able to share and experience the joy of Christ’s love through a simple smile.
Before going to Panama, we visited and prayed in the sanctuary Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe gathered whole pilgrims from Australia. We celebrated together the Eucharist and had time to tell Mary our intentions, problems and happiness. Also, we met high school students. They showed for us this beautiful sanctuary and shared the history of this place. These students were really energetic and loved this place.
We departed Mexico for Panama on Sunday (via the United States) for the beginning of World Youth Day 2019 in Panama that was to start on Tuesday. Despite obvious tiredness from long days, jet lag and early morning starts, we were in good spirits throughout the journey. Although several delays plagued flights, we all arrived safely and in good spirits.
Panama City was bursting with chanting, prayer and singing from pilgrims across the world. Speaking to us before we set out for the day, Bishop Vincent reminded us to have a contemplative spirit throughout the World Youth Day festivities.
“This week is a week we see through the eyes of God, we see with the heart of God and we do everything with that contemplative spirit which enables us to be in tune with the spirit. Yes, we can do a lot of things together to have fun, we can be loud, but it’s not ultimately the aim of why we are here. We are here to listen to the voice of God; we are here to enrich ourselves spiritually with what God has in store for us.”
Sunday evening, we arrived finally in Panama. Panama welcomed us really warmly. Every day was more than +30°C. On Monday, we had free day and could explore Panama City. It was a really busy city. It was preparing for WYD19 and the coming of Pope Francis. We could hear different languages and met different people. In this crowded place, I met Belarusian group. It was a big surprise for me. I felt really spoiled by God.
Catechesis for the Diocese of Parramatta pilgrims began. The catechesis events ran over three days during World Youth Day, catering to specific languages. We had the opportunity to meet and interact with pilgrims from other countries. Each catechesis had time for worship, interaction, a talk – given by a Bishop, and completed by Mass with a homily. The catechesises were goal to help youth for discernment vocation. Speakers were really good and had open hearts. They tried to show the young people how important it is to be happy in their life and open their heart for Jesus during discernment.
Roads were closed and the Panama City streets came to a standstill for many pilgrims. Despite the delays, Panamanian locals waved to locals and shouted “Bienvenido” along the route. They handed out bottles of water and sprayed garden hoses to refresh us from the stifling equatorial heat.
Pope Francis joined the pilgrims for a night of prayer, song and Eucharistic adoration for what is considered the highlight of the World Youth Day week. This Vigil was the most personal part of the central events with the Holy Father. It is a unique time of prayer and meeting with Christ and it has an atmosphere of total peace, but also great joy.
In his Sunday homily during the final Mass, Pope Francis urged us to respond to the call of God and to not to rely on others to make a difference. “Dear young people, you are not the future but the now of God. He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out…to speak out and realise the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you.”
Referencing the theme of the World Youth Day 2019, “I am the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word,” he asked pilgrims to model their lives of Mary’s saying “Mary dared to say ‘yes’ to take part in this now of God.”
The final day of the World Youth Day 2019 pilgrimage for the Diocese of Parramatta pilgrims was marked with a day of reflection and contemplation, culminating in a final Mass at our retreat at Stoney Creek Ranch, two hours out of Houston, Texas.
Sr Paula Volchek CSFN was a World Youth Day 2019 Panama pilgrim and is the Director of Vocation for the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Australia.