Looking around the field, it was easy to see that the world was gathered all in that place. Or, more precisely, that the Universal Church was gathered together in that one place. You saw it first in the flags – easily recognizable ones like Mexico and Great Britain, France and Japan, Switzerland and Brazil, then ones that we might not recognize as easily, like Kenya and Nigeria, Kuwait and Malaysia, St. Lucia and Angola, Slovakia and Botswana, Moldova and Namibia. And so many more.

But it wasn’t just the flags. These national symbols were carried by people, children of God from the whole world, of every race, language, and way of life. They came with their own stories of faith and courage, hope and struggles, love and fear. And for one night, at least, the divisions among the families of nations and peoples of the world were set aside. We prayed together. We learned each others names and the beginnings of each others stories. We shared the light of the same sun and gazed through the night at the same stars. And in the morning, we awoke to the call of our chief shepherd, Pope Francis, who led us all to Jesus in Word and Sacrament, Jesus who gathered us as one, Jesus who now sends us forth on mission to the lands of many flags and languages, cultures and ways of life, to proclaim the good news that God loves us all and calls us all to himself.

This is World Youth Day. This is the Church. This is our faith.

As we left the Vigil and Closing Mass, one of the members of our group who is from California carried a flag from the Netherlands that he had received from some Dutch pilgrims. A pilgrim from southern Indiana wore a hat from Ghana. Another had replaced his US flag with a Panamanian flag. One now had a scarf with the flag of South Africa. But more than flags, we had each encountered the people – the children of God – who had come to the isthmus of Panama to be with one another and to grow closer to our God.

This is World Youth Day. This is the Church. This is our faith.

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