Local youth experience universality of Church at unforgettable World Youth Day in Panama

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

February 8, 2019

Pilgrims pray during Pope Francis' World Youth Day vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard) 


FORT WORTH — After spending two weeks in Panama preparing to celebrate World Youth Day 2019, Jasmine Rivas returned to Texas with a deeper understanding of the universal Church.

“I could never have imagined there were so many Catholics in the whole entire world,” said the 13-year-old, sharing her thoughts with other St. Thomas parishioners following Mass February 2. “Now the word ‘catholic’ really makes sense to me.”

Despite long walks in soaring temperatures, crowded streets, and spotty access to electricity and internet access, Rivas described celebrating Mass with Pope Francis and 1 million people amazing and unforgettable.

“We got to experience the joy, happiness, and love of God through others,” she added. “Panama was a great country to host World Youth Day because it’s beautiful, very spiritual, and the people have so much love and happiness to offer!”

The Holy Father’s message to his young audience was also memorable. Standing before a sea of teenagers and young adults from six continents, the pontiff said they were not the future “but the ‘now’ of God” and encouraged them to “realize the dreams that the Lord has dreamed for you.”

Referencing the Scripture verse chosen for WYD 2019, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word,” (Lk 1:38) the pope asked his listeners to follow Mary’s fiat.

“She believed in God and His promise and dared to say ‘yes’ to taking part in His ‘now’ of the Lord. She had a mission,” he said. “May our ‘yes’ continue to be the gateway for the Holy Spirit to give us a new Pentecost for the world and the Church.”

Pope Francis blesses the crowd with the monstrance during the World Youth Day prayer vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


The pope’s words touched her heart, Rivas said.

“It was an honor to see him from a few feet away,” gushed the teen, who hopes to participate in WYD 2022 in Portugal. “He invited us to continue walking and sharing our faith.”

The Saginaw student was part of a 17-member contingent from St. Thomas Parish who attended the global event from Jan.22-27 in and around Panama City. It was the only delegation from the Diocese of Fort Worth to participate in WYD 2019 largely because of timing, according to Mirna Cano, St. Thomas youth director.

“Typically World Youth Day is held in the summer when [U.S.] kids are off from school,” she explained. “This time, it was scheduled for mid-January. That was a bit of a challenge for us but God made it work.”

The youth group raised $50,000 by selling baked goods and tamales and hosting a garage sale and brisket dinners. A portion of the expense was paid personally.

Before traveling to Panama City where they listened to talks, attended worship services, and celebrated Mass with Pope Francis, nine teens, their chaperones, and pastor Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, TOR, spent a week in El Valle de Anton — a small town three hours away from the capital city. Living in the mountain village for “Days in the Diocese” helped the young Texans learn about the culture and family life in Panama. Villagers prepared meals for their American guests and escorted them to church every day.

“Our backyard was filled with majestic mountains and we hiked and saw beautiful waterfalls,” said 13-year-old Joshua Gomez.

But the eighth grader’s lasting memory of El Valle is the festive way local Catholics celebrate Mass.

“The people were very lively during praise time by clapping, singing, dancing…” Gomez enthused. “We had fun with their traditions during Mass every day.”

Pope Francis leads the World Youth Day prayer vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Bustling Panama City was very different. The capital city’s population boomed as visitors arrived for the Jan. 27 papal Mass.

“I thought our Christmas and Easter Masses at St. Thomas were full!” Gomez said. “I was in awe at how many people shared our faith. Even though we didn’t all speak the same language, we were able to pray together.”

Fr. Mathew accompanied pilgrims from his parish on the journey and was chosen to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis along with 400 other priests.

“He spent time with them and shared things with us we didn’t know — like how he met St. Teresa of Calcutta,” said Cano, who chaperoned the teens along with several other adults. “Fr. Mathew talked about his decision to become a priest and devote his life to God. It was an experience our young people never would have had without spending these two weeks with him.”

Members of the St. Thomas youth group came home from the trip enthusiastic and eager to share their faith. On their first weekend home, the young pilgrims stood in the church vestibule collecting money for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“They were inspired by the pope’s message but as an adult, I was too,” the youth director admitted.

In his homily, Pope Francis reminded older Catholics to see youth through God’s eyes. They need roots and a sense of belonging, he added.

“It’s our responsibility to provide that, so I came back with a renewed sense of commitment to my faith, my church, my community, and definitely to the youth,” Cano said.

FORT WORTH — After spending two weeks in Panama preparing to celebrate World Youth Day 2019, Jasmine Rivas returned to Texas with a deeper understanding of the universal Church.

Published (until 2/9/2033)