PANAMA CITY, Panama – As Brooklyn and Queens pilgrims arrived at the final and perhaps, most important days of their World Youth Day pilgrimage, they also reached the longest leg of their journey – walking at least seven miles for the evening prayer vigil with Pope Francis.
After walking along the streets and sidewalks of Panama, they were ready for adoration, prayer and benediction at St. John Paul II Field in Metro Park.
Although first attempt to see the Holy Father was tumultuous with the heat and overbearing crowds, the anxiety they had in anticipation of the overnight was met with a different experience.
According to St. Jerome, Flatbush, pilgrim Myriame Delva, she said it seemed more organized with a lot more lanes of entry compared to the experience she had seeing the Holy Father as he arrived in Panama. For the overnight, local officials were checking tickets and most importantly, no pushing or shoving occurred.
After the pilgrims safely entered the gate and walked to their section, which wasn’t extremely far from the main stage, they prepared themselves for the overnight vigil. They joined multitude of pilgrims who watched fellow young people on the main stage as they gave testimonies. Portions of the night were filled with music, dancing and prayers to the Blessed Mother.
One, Holy Church
Thousands of pilgrims also made the rocky field their home base for the evening. When viewed from the top of a tall structure, the people who flocked to the field named after St. Pope John Paul II, the pope who first envisioned this international gathering decades ago, looked like a packed stadium in Citi Field multiplied to extend beyond the eye can see. For the next 24 hours, a fraction of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church gathered under the same skies.
As the prayers ended for the evening, two pilgrims from St. Patrick’s parish in Bay Ridge walked around the field and bumped into a special Panamanian figure.
“This man stopped us to speak to us and asked us ‘Hey, where are you guys from?’” Sarah Carr said. “We had a brief conversation and he mentioned he knew our bishop and then we walked away and my friend had realized ‘I think we just met the president of Panama.’”
Special moments filled with surprise, wonder, awe, joy and fraternity continued into the wee hours of the night.
“I just like the cultural diffusion between a lot of different countries,” said Anderson Hazelwood from Our Lady of Light parish, St. Albans.
“I see a lot of similarities in a lot of cultures and I can also relate to a lot of different cultures even though I am American.”
Most pilgrims from the Brooklyn contingent rested under the Panamanian night sky, nestled in between rows of tents and sleeping bags. For those who did get a chance to catch some shut-eye, they woke up at six a.m. to the sound of two extremely energetic emcees who were more effective than any alarm clock.
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Even though it was still dark, by the time the groups would assemble, have breakfast and prepare for Mass with the Holy Father, they would be a part of the estimated Mass attendance numbers that rose to 700,000 people.
Joyful psalms and songs in Spanish and English filled the air when Mass began at 8 a.m. The moment had come to celebrate the Eucharistic banquet together with Pope Francis.
While the Mass was in Spanish, some pilgrims were able to understand. Even those who didn’t understand the language knew the order of Mass enough to know exactly when to kneel or when to stand.
What the Church Is Really About
For Kervens Georges, a pilgrim from SS. Joachim and Anne in Queens Village, he said he would have to wait to read the translations in English during his own free time in order to grasp the message of the pontiff. But that didn’t take away from the deeper message he would take back to his community in Queens.
“This is what the Catholic Church is about, not what you hear in the media,” said Georges. “It’s about love, community, protecting the environment and also protecting the unborn, that’s what the Church is all about.”
As for David Mellado from St. Bartholomew, Elmhurst, he understood the pope’s message since Spanish was his native language.
“He was saying that the kids are not the future, they are the present which is today and that we’re supposed to make a difference,” said Mellado.
“We’re the ones who are supposed to spread the Word that he just said, apply it to our own lives and other people’s lives to make a difference.”
A Burden Lifted
Capturing not only the pope’s message of faith in action, but also Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s message on forgiveness, Shaba Pierre from Our Lady of Refuge in Flatbush, said she can go home with weight lifted off her shoulders.
That’s because for the first time in six years, she received the sacrament of reconciliation. Even though she told the priest she didn’t remember how to properly complete the sacrament, it was through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the two shared a deep conversation that allowed her to be vulnerable, yet open to the graces awaiting her.
The only seminarian within the entire contingent, Patrice Legoute, said WYD was an experience that strengthened his own personal fiat to say yes to the priesthood and enter the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston.
He had parting words for his fellow pilgrims: “The message for World Youth Day is ‘I’m a servant of the Lord’ and it really is moving for me to know that God willing, I will be a servant of the Lord, called as a priest.
“Seeing everyone right now gives me so much hope that the Church is very much alive and will continue to thrive. Take some time alone in the silence of your heart and just listen to what God has to say.
“You’d be surprised at what He’s telling you to do,” Legoute said.
Photos from the Overnight Vigil