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WYD Panama: How a small, lay, missionary, and poor church will evangelize the universal Church

Salt + Light Media

Friday, January 18, 2019

Street musician and World Youth Day volunteers in Colon, Panama. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
World Youth Day Panama 2019 is upon us. As youth pilgrims ready themselves for the unforgettable journey and final preparations are made, S+L’s Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann, a native Panamanian, is already in Panama getting ready to report on events from the ground. But before he left, he took time to give us his perspective on the evangelical potential of this unique world event descending on the tiny Central American country.

You’ve participated in many World Youth Days: as an art director (Toronto 2002), a producer for S+L (Cologne 2005, Sydney 2008, Madrid 2011, Rio 2013), a pavilion director (Krakow 2016), and a consultant (Panama 2019).
What makes WYD Panama distinct?
Deacon Pedro: Panama 2019 in many ways is the same as all World Youth Days. All the elements of a WYD are there: a meeting with the Holy Father; a meeting between the young laity and the hierarchical church; catechesis; celebration; liturgy; reconciliation; vocations, and it’s all done by the hand of Mary and the Saints and under the Cross.
What makes Panama distinct is that Panama is a very small country. If you imagine 3,000,000 people on Copacabana beach at the Closing Mass of Rio 2013 – that’s the population of Panama. It’s a small church, and it’s a poor church. At the same time, it is a very lay-driven church and a missionary church. It is also a Marian church. This WYD is a Central American WYD, hosted in Panama. It will give many Central American and Caribbean youth, who would never be able to attend a WYD, the opportunity to attend. It will also be a great opportunity for the small, lay, missionary, and poor church of Latin American to evangelize to the rest of the universal Church.
You were born in Panama, you have family there, and you visit frequently.
What does this World Youth Day mean for the people and church in Panama?
Deacon Pedro: I don’t think anyone expected that WYD would ever go to Panama. These big events never get awarded to small, poor countries. But Panamanians have stepped up. There are challenges, as there always are, and perhaps the challenges Panama has faced in planning this event are different than in other countries because of the reasons I’ve stated, but WYD is never devoid of challenges. I am certain that there will be problems; there will be chaos; there has been opposition to this WYD (as there always is). But in the end I truly believe that this will be a memorable event for all the right reasons. It is a great honour to have been chosen to host this event and to have Pope Francis visit our country.
At WYDs we witness powerful expressions of the host country’s culture and religiosity.
What can we expect from WYD Panama?
Deacon Pedro: When I first spoke to the Archbishop of Panama, Mons. Jose Domingo Ulloa, he told me that Panamanian bishops wanted a theme that had to do with Mary and with vocations. These two elements, in some sense, reflect the Panamanian church. Catholics in Latin America have a strong sense of vocation and mission: churches are full, not just on Sundays but every day. Young people are active in the church. At the same time, Panamanians are a joyful people. We love music and having a good time.
At the same time, there is a sense of consumerism and superficiality that affects everyone in these small, poor countries. There is also corruption and a deep-seated third-world mentality. But in the midst of all that, the church thrives. People here have a real sense of the Divine and our connection to it. This is one of the things that excites me about this WYD: the little church of Panama will evangelize the world.
I’ll never forget what Archbishop Ulloa said at the press conference in Krakow after Panama had been announced as the host for 2019: “If you want to prepare for Panama, learn how to dance.” The world will see a country that is rich in culture, rich in popular devotions, a country that is young and joyful and a country that is deeply spiritual and committed to service and mission.
The World Youth Days are global events with youth from all over the world. But most of the participants usually come from the host country and surrounding region. There is political instability in Nicaragua to the north and Venezuela to the east.
How are organizers expecting these situations to impact participation?
Deacon Pedro: The idea of WYD going to Panama came with great support from the bishops of Latin America and Mexico. The understanding was that even though it would be hosted in Panama (the only country in the region that could probably host something like this), it would be a Central American WYD. With this in mind, the involvement of other Central American countries was vital. This was achieved to a certain degree with the pilgrimage of the WYD Cross (which normally travels around the host country before the event but in this case traveled all over Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean) and with the Days in the Dioceses, which were planned to include Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Sadly, because of the crisis in Nicaragua, the Days in the Dioceses had to be cancelled there. The delegation from that country will also be diminished, and many pilgrims who were hoping to travel to Panama by road from countries north of Nicaragua have had to change their plans. This will affect attendance.
The crisis in Venezuela is very palpable in Panama as Panama was one of the first countries to receive Venezuelan migrants. The WYD Cross also visited Venezuela as a sign of solidarity. These two conflicts will be front and centre – but also others. It’s hard to be in Latin America, or be “Church” in Latin America without being constantly aware of the social injustices that our continent has suffered since the arrival of the Europeans. These will be made very obvious in a special way during the Way of the Cross on the Friday evening of WYD.

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