Today, the heart of World Youth Day began with the first of three days of catechesis. Pilgrims are divided into smaller groups by language and assigned to churches, schools, gymnasiums, and other venues around the city. We were assigned to San Francisco de la Caleta Church – or, as we found out when we arrived, the gravel parking lot adjacent to the church – for our English language catechesis with about 1500 pilgrims from around the world – the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, the Philippines, and more. Our catechist was Bishop Ed Burns of Dallas, Texas. He also celebrated Mass with us at the end of the morning session.
Some of our group then went to the local convention center for another prayer, music, and worship gathering for English-language pilgrims. I took the afternoon to get caught up on parish and vocations office work, then a few of us went out to wander the city. In the meantime, thousands and thousands of people had begun to line the route that Pope Francis would be following after he landed at the Panama City airport this afternoon and was making his way into the city. I really think just about everyone in Panama City came out to see the Pope. We walked for a while along the road, and it was packed full of people for as far as the eye could see. After walking through the crowds, we found a spot to stop and wait.
The noise of cheers preceeded the white-clad figure of Pope Francis as he was whisked by in the popemobile. It really is fascinating watching how excited people are to see the Holy Father – for many of these people, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the pope in their own city, and many of them waited for hours to claim a front-row spot. Of course, since it is 2019, lots of phones were taking pictures and video – my own included. I just wonder how many people actually saw Pope Francis directly with their eyes rather than through their screens …
One more set of encounters to round out the day … As I was sitting in the hotel lobby this afternoon working on emails, a group of about a dozen Polish bishops who are staying in the same hotel started to gather in the lobby before heading off somewhere together. A few minutes later, a young man sat down, and he and I started talking. He lives in San Diego now, but he is from Iraq. He is part of the Chaldean Catholic Church. We ended up talking a bit about languages and eventually about the Greek New Testament; he is interested in learning Greek. Such encounters are my favorite part of World Youth Day and a reminder of the universality of the Church – from Poland to Iraq to the United States of America to Panama.
Tomorrow, the other part of our group from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis arrives in Panama. We plan for another day of catechesis, and then the formal papal welcoming ceremony at the same location as the Opening Mass.