While in New York for the U.N. General Assembly session, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela expressed great enthusiasm for next January’s World Youth Day in Panama City at a meeting with New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, at the cardinal’s residence in Manhattan Sept. 29.
The first Central American country to host World Youth Day, Panama is gearing up in a big way for the weeklong event, Jan. 22-27, 2019, when an estimated 300,000 youth and young adults will come together to encounter Christ through prayer, catechesis and Masses with the Holy Father.
President Varela told the prelates how proud he is to welcome Pope Francis and young visitors from across the globe to his homeland, and discussed some of the arrangements, logistics and security measures being taken to ensure a safe and successful celebration.
He spoke of how the government is improving infrastructure to address transportation challenges: An airport expansion is underway and a new metro system will get pilgrims around the city with ease.
Organizers continue to work out plans for the main events – opening ceremonies, papal welcome and Stations of the Cross – on the Cinta Costera, a palm tree-lined waterfront boulevard along Panama Bay.
President Varela also said he hoped to open his palace for pilgrims to visit during the week, and confirmed that the final Mass will be held in Metro Park. The new metro system will be able to take people there.
More Than 300 Local Pilgrims
Subways are second nature for those pilgrims from New York. The Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York will each send a delegation to World Youth Day, with a combined total of more than 300 pilgrims headed to Panama. Bishop DiMarzio and Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros will join the group from Brooklyn and Queens.
President Varela also noted that the Church is bringing more international pilgrims to Panama than any other event in the history of the Central American nation. And the fruits of that are expected to be far reaching.
Since some poorer countries could not afford to send pilgrims, President Varela is personally sponsoring 20 young people from Palestine and Jordan.
Additionally, the president told the cardinal and the bishop that because of connections that have already been made through World Youth Day, Panama will open embassies in three countries where it had no previous presence: Jordan, Australia and a yet to be determined country in Central Africa.
During the meeting, gifts were exchanged between the president and prelates, as was some good-natured banter. Conversation also touched upon Catholics who have influenced the church and society in Panama.
The gathering was arranged following a late summer meeting between Bishop DiMarzio and Panamanian ambassador to the U.N., Melitón Alejandro Arrocha Ruíz, at the Chancery Office in Brooklyn.
Ambassador Arrocha was also present for the meeting at the cardinal’s residence, as was Emanuel Gonzalez-Revilla, the Panamanian ambassador to the U.S., Father Gerard Sauer, Brooklyn diocesan pilgrimage director; and Colin Nykaza, director of young adult outreach for the Archdiocese of New York.
Bridge Among Nations, People
“Panama has always been a bridge among nations, cultures and people,” Ambassador Gonzalez-Revilla told The Tablet. “World Youth Day is part of this historical ‘calling’ that will bring together thousands of young people from around the world with one common goal: [to] promote peace, tolerance… building a better world together.”
Although the opening ceremonies are more than three months away, Ambassador Gonzalez-Revilla can already see the positive impact this event is having on his country and its people.
“The President (Varela) always says that when the Pope visits a country, the country changes for good,” he said. “We are also sure Panamanians will benefit from a cultural exchange we have never seen before. There will be a stimulation of several areas of the economy and job creation, the country will strengthen internal capabilities due to our preparation for this event in security, mobilizations, among others.”
In the area of cultural exchange, doors among people of various backgrounds and cultures will open both literally and figuratively as locals open their homes to accommodate pilgrims. Ambassador Gonzalez-Revilla and his family plan to host a couple of bishops in their home.
“We are confident that the world, visitors and the millions and millions of people who will be following the event, will get to see the real Panama: a peaceful country, with welcoming and joyful people,” he said.