By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
PANAMA CITY, Panama – While skeptics may question the value of World Youth Day, the Vatican-sponsored week-long youth festival currently taking place in Panama, one border bishop from Texas believes it’s never been more important as it helps combat rising tides of nationalism across the globe.
“I just love this feeling that the world can come together, and the youth are so excited to meet people from other places and to share what we have in common, which is our Catholic faith, across the language or cultural barriers,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told The Tablet.
“There’s so much of this that is an antidote to the prevailing direction that we’re seeing the world go in,” he said.
Seitz, who has participated in all three World Youth Days under Pope Francis, takes particular delight in the location of this year’s event as the country of Panama is often considered a bridge connecting continents and oceans and their peoples.
“It’s such an appropriate place for us to gather, especially when the world is becoming more polarized,” said Seitz. “Not only do we have the secular culture’s individualism, but on the political level, there’s such nationalism that tends to separate us.”
Although Seitz, along with 70 pilgrims from his diocese, may be away from home for the week, he’s still tuned in to the latest news of the federal government shutdown that’s now been going on for over a month.
He says he believes that President Donald Trump’s decision to close down the government until he receives funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is “extremely unhealthy.”
On Wednesday, en route to Panama, the pope said that the proposed border wall is driven by “fear” that makes people act irrationally.
“I understand that there are always negotiations, and there’s always compromise on a political level. But I think we’ve reached a new low in terms of debate and what those compromises should be,” Seitz said.
“You’re always going to have people say, ‘I’ll give you a little of this, if you give me a little of that.’ But what you offer should not be based upon the lives and well-being of human beings,” he said.
Seitz also told The Tablet that the tragic irony of the present situation is that while the president claims the border wall is necessary for security and safety, by closing the government he’s counteracting both.
“The U.S. government has hundreds of thousands of employees and they’re not a bargaining tool,” Seitz continued. “It’s kind of like a family where, in order to get one child to do what’s right, you say, well, ‘I’m not going to feed your brother until you agree.’ That’s not how it works.”
Seitz, however, also wants to make it clear that he’s not playing partisan politics, telling The Tablet that withholding government funding as a means to get one’s way “didn’t start with the present administration.”
Regardless who’s in office, he insists that such tactics are “a real abuse of the system.”
“In a democratic system you ought to be talking about issues and weighing priorities, but this clearly isn’t the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
Seitz, who often sports a “Defend Immigrants” button on his coat jacket, says that in the coming days, he doesn’t expect to hear anything “earth-shaking” from Francis on migration – ”he’s been so clear already” – but he believes Panama, and World Youth Day specifically, will help punctuate many of the themes so close to both his and the pope’s hearts.
“He brings it to us in the American hemisphere, so there’s a timeliness to it,” Seitz said. “And here we are living this unity that we, as Catholics, believe is something we should be searching for in the world.”
“This is not to say that borders should go away or nations should go away. Nobody is saying that. We love our nation. Everyone here is carrying their flags – they’re proud of their country,” he continued.
“Yet this experience creates the possibility of encounter, and this is something we’re living at World Youth Day,” said Seitz.