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Young adults enjoy a 'piece of Panama' at World Youth Day in Washington

Members of the Grufolpawa Panamanian dance group perform at the Jan. 26 Panama in the Capital gathering, a stateside festival at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., coinciding with World Youth Day led by Pope Francis in Panama City. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

While World Youth Day was underway in Panama, about two thousand miles away in Washington, D.C., the joy of that celebration unfolded stateside as 1,400 young adult Catholics gathered Jan. 26 for Panama in the Capital on the campus of The Catholic University of America. 

The pilgrims in the nation’s capital, united in solidarity with their peers at World Youth Day in Panama, came together to answer Pope Francis’s call to reflect on Mary’s words at the Annunciation: “I am the servant of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And typical of World Youth Days and of this year’s gathering taking place in Central America, Panama in the Capital was marked by flags, food, fun and the fervor of the young faithful. 

The main sponsors of Panama in the Capital included the Catholic Apostolate Center, Grotto Network, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, the Embassy of Panama, and the Archdiocese of Washington. Other sponsors included the Diocese of Arlington, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the McGrath Institute, the Baltimore Catholic young adult ministry, the Sisters of Bon Secours, Divine Mercy University and Outside the Box Films.

While it was a bit colder in Washington, D.C., than in Panama, you couldn’t tell that from the smiles of passers-by on the streets, walking happily in small crowds among the buildings of CUA’s campus, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.  Pilgrims in the capital enjoyed a day much like those in Panama encountered. The schedule included talks and performances by Catholic speakers and musicians from around the globe, food trucks and a traditional Panamanian dinner, and plenty of opportunities to engage in the sacraments. Confession and Eucharistic Adoration were available, in addition to a Vigil Mass, and Candlelight Stations of the Cross later in the evening. 

Another attribute of World Youth Day events is the diversity of the smiling crowds. Just as young people from all nations gathered in Panama, so too did pilgrims from different parts of the United States get on buses, bundle up, and make the journey to Washington, D.C. 

Kristen Uitenham, from the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, came on a bus with about 60 others from her diocese. Since converting to Catholicism three years ago, she has heard “wonderful stories” about the World Youth Day experience. Uitenham, like many other young people, hope to one day attend the event with the pope abroad, but she still jumped at the opportunity to join with others in this local celebration. 

“It’s a signal!” she said, when she heard a bus from Newark was traveling to this event in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I gave it up to God, and it was amazing from start to finish. The talks were awesome on key topics. The only problem was that I wanted to be at so many at once!”

The topics for the talks included how to lead as a Christian, taking your prayer life to the next level, confronting polarization, rolling up your sleeves to share the Gospel, and finding healing and wholeness. 

Uitenham was able to reconnect with her spiritual director who had traveled there from Michigan, and said she’s looking forward to reading a book of devotionals she purchased from the vendors.  She agreed special touches, like the bilingual talks, the dinner featuring Panamanian cuisine, and the Panamanian dancers performing there, offered “a taste of the spirit of Panama.”  

Pilgrims from the Washington area included a group from St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington, Virginia. Sergio Martinez, a CUA alumni, who attended World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016, said they were excited to take part in the event, and share the joy and faith of the pilgrims in Panama.

“I hoped to get the same (spiritual) renewal I found in Krakow. It’s been great connecting with friends and like-minded souls, fostering our relationships with God,” Martinez said, adding that he felt solidarity with the World Youth Day pilgrims celebrating with Pope Francis in Panama. 

Martinez added, “Pope Francis is encouraging young people to rediscover our relationships with God in a society that desperately needs wisdom from Jesus, Mary, and the saints.”  He thinks the major question Pope Francis is posing for young adult Catholics is, “How can we unify those from different backgrounds as the body of the Church?” 

Rene Pinilla, who is from Panama, arrived later in the evening because he tutors children on Saturdays. Once he arrived, he enjoyed sampling the food of his native country, especially the cocadas (coconut cookies). He was happy to see a booth highlighting Panama’s history and culture and inviting tourists to visit there. 

Another member of the Virginia parish, Patrick Realiza, who serves as a lector and men’s group leader there, said he has always wanted to attend a World Youth Day festival.  When he heard of the local event “right here in our own backyard,” he said he felt drawn to the “piece of Panama experience” and the opportunity to engage with other young adult Catholics.

World Youth Day events offer opportunities for young people to recharge and embolden each other to live for Christ, and young adult Catholics at Panama in the Capital who were interviewed by the Catholic Standard said the topics covered during the speakers’ sessions were relevant in their lives as active members in the Church. 

Joo Yen Hong, originally from Korea, and now a member of St. Stephen Martyr Parish in Washington, D.C., was an attendee and volunteer at the event. She found the panel on marriage and dating helpful for the young people present, full of great stories and encouragement.  She said in her own future, she wants family and marriage to be a priority, and it answered her question, “How do people of faith wait for God’s timing?”  

She also appreciated the beauty of the candlelight Stations of the Cross in the basilica’s Crypt Church. “Last year was personally difficult for me, so I attend daily Mass,” she said. “I was experiencing a spiritual dryness, but I didn’t give up my faith.  That’s why I came today – I’m trying to stay faithful. God is teaching me the true definition of love – staying loyal to Him even without a feeling.” 

During Panama in the Capital, a stateside World Youth Day event held on Jan. 26 in Washington, D.C., young adult pilgrims pray during the candlelight Stations of the Cross in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Emmanuel Alakwe, originally from Nigeria, also attended Krakow in the Capital in 2016, and wanted to hear the talks and engage in prayers again with other young adult Catholics. He said he enjoyed a “beautiful talk on deepening your prayer life,” and he hopes the experience will help him “remember what I heard, and put it into practice.”

College student Jenny Rodriguez – who came with the Catholic group from American University in the nation’s capital – and was pleased to see their chaplain, Father Ivan Pertine, speak on a panel about the adventure of sharing the Gospel in today’s world. She said the faithful today have a mission “to invite others into the Gospel of Jesus.” She said if she could ask Pope Francis for a particular intention, she would ask him to “pray for college students in America, that we remain in our faith and let that be a transformative adventure.” 

Abraham Da Silva Vidao, born in Venezuela and raised in Portugal, traveled with another group of around 60 people all the way from Knoxville, Tennessee. “It’s been one of my best days in a long time, and it’s nice to have this opportunity to have a beautiful experience with God,” he said. “It reminds me the faith is not just alive in my country, but also in the United States.”

The next World Youth Day will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022, again offering an opportunity for young adult Catholics to come together as pilgrims to that international gathering and to stateside events, united in their faith and in the challenge to live and share it in today’s world.