By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
PANAMA CITY – As Latin America plays host to World Youth Day this week, it will once again serve as a reminder that the global south is fueling Catholicism worldwide.
While Panama may be the actual location of the weeklong Vatican-backed youth festival, much of Latin America and the Caribbean are also considering themselves the symbolic hosts of the first-ever World Youth Day to take place in Central America.
Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told The Tablet that in the same way that the contributions of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. Church was given a spotlight at last September’s Encuentro, a major gathering of more than 3,500 Hispanic Catholics, World Youth Day will be an occasion for the entire world to get a glimpse of the “rich enthusiasm that Hispanic and Latino Catholics bring to the Church worldwide.”
“The Latin American Church is driving our energy,” said Jarzembowski, who added that events such as this World Youth Day are an opportunity to showcase the tremendous good that happens “when we really let Hispanic Catholics lead.”
Since the announcement at the last World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland in July 2016, Jarzembowski has traveled to Panama on five occasions to help with preparations and to make sure that all is in order for when the more than 12,000 U.S. pilgrims – hailing from nearly 800 Catholic dioceses and institutions, and led by 34 U.S. Catholic bishops – arrive on the ground.
Throughout the week, pilgrims will take part in catechesis, concerts, and more, timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s arrival in the country on Wednesday evening.
In addition to the official World Youth Day events, the USCCB is co-sponsoring the “U.S. Pilgrim Fiat Festival” with the Knights of Columbus and FOCUS. The event, which is open to all English language pilgrims, will include a Holy Hour led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles.
Last week, the Vatican announced that 150,000 pilgrims are registered to take part in the official events of World Youth Day, which kick off on Tuesday – a steep decline from past years.
Even so, those numbers are expected to swell to well over half a million for the final Mass with Pope Francis next Sunday.
Jamie Lynn Black, a veteran of large-scale Church events, who is serving as the international media coordinator, told The Tablet that “from the beginning, organizers planned for this event to be a bit smaller.”
“World Youth Days have typically been held in July, and while that is convenient for Europeans and pilgrims from the U.S., most young Central Americans are in school then. This time around, they have been given an opportunity to host an event during their summer,” she said.
Jarzembowski said the energy in Panama City, with a population of 1.5 million, is “contagious” and credits that, in part, to Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, whom he described as a “rock star,” as he’s traveled the country and the world to bolster participation in the event.
Along with Archbishop Ulloa, the event has received strong backing from the Panamanian government, with President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez serving as a behind the scenes protagonist who helped push for the country’s selection to host the event.
“Pope Francis is a Latin American pope who will speak his native language to the many Spanish-speaking pilgrims,” Black said. “The smaller size and the Spanish language will create a special connection.”
Among the themes expected to dominate the week, Jarzembowski said he expects ecology to factor in the pope’s remarks.
“This will be a time for young people to really get Laudato si’,” he told The Tablet, referencing the pope’s 2015 encyclical calling for urgent attention to environmental concerns.
Jarzembowski added that the natural beauty of Panama City – set on the Pacific Ocean – will help punctuate that thought.
“You can’t help but to see God’s creation in full bloom,” he said.
He also said that he expects Saint Óscar Romero, the El Salvadoran martyr who was recently canonized by Pope Francis in October, to loom large, which he believes will help elevate a focus on the persecuted Church worldwide.
Black also said that this World Youth Day is the first to incorporate the first World Meeting of Indigenous Youth, where nearly 400 young people from around the world gathered last week in the rural Panama countryside before traveling to the city this week to participate in the global gathering.
In addition to being pilgrims, they will host an indigenous village as part of the Youth Festival to interact with other pilgrims and show how they live their faith within their indigenous communities.
As is custom, Black said that Panamanians are eager to show off their food, art, and local dress – and of course their faith – to the rest of the Church.
Meanwhile, Jarzembowski said that for those not traveling to Panama, events like the Fiat Festival will be live streamed, and he pointed to events like Washington’s Panama in the Capital and World Youth Day Houston, which are aimed to attract those staying home to share in the enthusiasm of the event.
“[A lack of] presence in Panama should not exclude one’s participation in World Youth Day,” said Jarzembowski.