If I had a list of things I did not expect to do on this pilgrimage, one of them surely would have been to meet the First Lady of Panama and sing the National Anthem of the United States to her while she held an American flag. But that is just what happened on our way to the Opening Mass of World Youth Day in Panama City today. Some things just happen – and this was one of those things.

After a visit to a number of historic churches, plazas, and promenades in the Old Town of Panama City, we started to make our way to the location of the Opening Mass. Our local guide decided to take us on a bit of a short-cut through the grounds of the presidential palace. A few other groups were there at the same time. We went through a security checkpoint, and in the courtyard of the palace we found water and sandwiches – courtesy the president of the Republic – ready for free for pilgrims. We then made our way to the front of the presidential palace, where a group of Mexican pilgrims was singing and chanting – we thought maybe they were trying to see if the President would open a window and wave. But instead, a few minutes later, the First Lady of Panama walked out of the front door of the palace, stood on the steps, greeted people, took selfies, talked about World Youth Day, sang along with various songs, and personally greeted anyone who wanted to talk with her. When she saw our US flag, she asked – in English – where we were from and was glad to hear that we are from Indiana, because she has a son who is a junior at the University of Notre Dame. So she called us all up, had us stand around her for a picture, while she was holding a US flag, and the people around us said that we should sing our National Anthem. So we did. The First Lady was gracious, welcoming, and excited to have us in her country and at her home. And that’s how we met he First Lady of Panama.

While maybe not the expected highlight of the day, this encounter certainly became the most memorable – and even surreal – part of our day. From there, we joined a couple hundred thousand people for the Opening Mass with the Archbishop of Panama, and then out for dinner before heading back to the hotel. Tomorrow we begin catechesis and the heart of World Youth Day 2019.

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