By Inés San Martín
PANAMA CITY – History’s first Latin American pope opened his latest homecoming on Thursday by extolling the region as a “Great Fatherland,” emphasizing both its unity and cultural distinctiveness, and describing his host nation Panama as a “bridge between oceans and a natural land of encounter.”
“Another world is possible!” Pope Francis said in his first official speech in the nation, where he’s set to lead the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day gathering.
The pope said young people “urge us to take our part in building it, so that our dreams do not only remain ephemeral or ethereal, but can promote a social contract in which everyone has the chance to dream of a tomorrow.”
“The right to the future is also a human right,” the pontiff said, addressing local authorities, the diplomatic corps and representatives of society in the Palacio Bolivar, home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Panama.
Pope Francis recalled that Simon Bolivar, widely considered one of the fathers of the Americas, once said that Panama could be the capital of a unified “Great Fatherland,” a concept Pope Francis has used before to refer to a united Latin America, embracing the multicultural richness of each people and culture.
Despite being the narrowest country of the entire American continent, according to Pope Francis Panama is a “symbol of the sustainability born of the ability to create bonds and alliances,” a capacity which, he believes, shapes the heart of the population.
Every person, he said, has a “special place” in the building of the nation, and is called to ensure that “the land can live up to its vocation to be a land of convocation and encounter.”
Doing so, he said, involves decision, commitment and a daily effort to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to “feel that they are agents of their own destiny and that of their families and the entire nation.”
The future of society demands the active, not merely nominal, input of each of its members, the pope said, and the dignity of each person must be “acknowledged and guaranteed” through access to good education and the promotion of dignified jobs.
The lack of education and jobs restricts a person’s freedom, Pope Francis said, and ignores the dignity of the country’s citizens, particularly the most unfortunate.
“It’s possible to defend the common good above the interests of a few … only when there is a firm decision to share one’s goods with justice,” he said.
Touching on the reason behind his trip, Pope Francis said the younger generation, “with its joy and enthusiasm, with its freedom, sensitivity and critical capacity, demands that adults, and specially all those who exercise roles of leadership in public life, lead a life consonant with the dignity and authority that they possess and that has been entrusted to them.”
The pope also argued that young people call upon those who exercise leadership in public life to live “in simplicity and transparency, with a clear sense of responsibility for others and for our world.”
During World Youth Day, Pope Francis said, Panama will become a “hub of hope,” with the opening of new channels of communication and understanding, of solidarity, creativity and assistance, “channels of humanity that foster commitment and break through anonymity and isolation, for the sake of a new way of building history.”
The Panama edition of the youth festival will defy some of the usual geopolitical divisions in a variety of ways.
Mexican and American pilgrims will walk elbow to elbow, as will those coming from Europe and those coming from Africa. This will be especially visible on Saturday and Sunday, during the open-air vigil and Mass, to be celebrated in Panama City’s coastal area.
Such category-busting encounters are nothing new for World Youth Day. In 2016 in Krakow, Poland, it was easy to identify flags from Israeli and Palestinian pilgrims sitting next to one another.
Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, president of Panama, referred to this spirit during his welcoming remarks, telling the pope that the ongoing youth gathering delivers a message that goes beyond the borders of Catholicism.
“Your visit gives the opportunity for all of us, believers and non-believers, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and all men [and women] of good will, to unite for a common goal, placing the human person above, the obligation to guard over our brothers, the forgotten and marginalized, for the common good,” the president said.
The papal visit, Rodriguez said, comes at a time in which the world is facing many challenges, and Pope Francis’s message carries a “voice of support, faith and hope for the youth of countries that face political and social conflicts, humanitarian crises, natural disasters, violence, inequality, problems related to organized crime and the alternative of a complicated and painful migration.”
Yet World Youth Day is not just an opportunity of introspection or sharing pains, but a celebration and a shot of hope for many of those attending.
“We know [that another world is possible] and young people urge us to take our part in building it, so that our dreams do not only remain ephemeral or ethereal, but [they] can promote a social contract in which everyone has the chance to dream of a tomorrow,” Pope Francis said.
“The right to the future is also a human right,” he said.
Attending the event was an interreligious group of some 10 people, including Argentine Rabbi Gustavo Kraselink, who’s been in Panama for the past 16 years. He told reporters travelling with the pope that the country is an “example” of interreligious dialogue, with religions coexisting without conflict.
“What we see as normal here is extraordinary in other parts of the world,” he said.
This is Pope Francis’ first visit to Central America, though his visited most of the countries down south. This is the second time a pope visits Panama, with the previous being John Paul II in 1983, during a week-long trip that also took him to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize and Haiti.
Upon his arrival in Panama on Wednesday afternoon, Pope Francis was welcomed by the cheer of thousands flocking the path along the route of the popemobile, including a young man in a wheel chair who was lifted up by his friends when the pontiff went through where they were. Many had been waiting in the streets for most of the day, carrying signs such as “Panama is praying for you,” and “Pope Francis: thank you for coming on my birthday” and chanting “This is the youth of the pope” and “Francis, our friend, the people is with you.”
According to official statistics, and estimated half million people took the metro to move around the city.