The global Church convened in Panama City in January to celebrate World Youth Day. More than 40 Chaminade students joined classmates from Kellenberg Memorial High School on a pilgrimage to pray with young Catholics from many different countries. According to the Catholic News Service, some 113,000 pilgrims registered for events held Tuesday, Jan. 22 through Sunday, Jan. 27.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, World Youth Day is important for three reasons: first, celebrating and putting trust in the young; second, making pilgrimage; and third, encountering the Catholic community. Chaminade students started attending World Youth Day in 2000 in Rome, and continued with trips to Toronto in 2002; Cologne, Germany in 2005; Sydney in 2008; Madrid in 2011; Rio de Janeiro in 2013; and Krakow, Poland in 2016.
Larry Shammas '19 (second from left in the photo above) was on the pilgrimage to Panama and shares his experience.
I was jolted awake at 1 a.m. as my alarm blared next to my head. I checked a final time that my bags were totally packed as I readied myself for my first trip out of the U.S. I met the rest of the pilgrims on my early morning flight at Kellenberg Memorial High School, where we said our final goodbyes and took some pre-trip pictures. After about 12 hours of flights and layovers, we finally stepped foot in Panama, where we were immediately greeted by applause and smiles from native Panamanian Catholics. They shook our hands, high-fived us, and greeted us with signs reading inspiring messages such as, "God Loves His Pilgrims!" or "Welcome to Panama brothers and sisters!"
At this point we were still a little less than a week away from when the Pope would actually arrive in Panama, but the country was already energized with the Catholic faith. Billboards showed images of the Pope and the phrase ¡Bienvenidos Peregrinos! which the more linguistically inclined members of the group quickly told me meant Welcome Pilgrims! I hadn't been in the country more than an hour and I already felt at home.
We reached the first of two hotels we would be staying in for our pilgrimage with a breathtaking resort a few miles outside of Panama City. For the next few days we spent time getting to relax and bond with both the Chaminade and Kellenberg pilgrims, some of whom I knew, many of whom I was meeting for the first time. As we awaited the arrival of Pope Francis, we had several incredible adventures. The first of which was a tour of the Panama Canal, complete with going through the world-famous locks. This "bucket list" event was quickly followed by a trip into the Gamboa Rainforest and a boat ride to Monkey Island, where we saw first-hand the natural beauty of the country.
The following day, we reached our next hotel. On the trip between hotels, we stopped in a lovely Panamanian market where we got a chance to test our Spanish speaking skills as well as purchase souvenirs for ourselves and our families. While I am not a particularly gifted Spanish speaker as a Latin student at Chaminade, several Spanish V students were having fluent conversations.
The next day, now five days into the trip, was the day for which we had all been waiting. World Youth Day had officially begun with the Opening Mass, which was celebrated by the Archbishop of Panama. The Mass was preceded by a few hours of singing and dancing with pilgrims from all over the world, we traded American paraphernalia for foreign mementos, the most prized for me was a small plush koala bear from the Australian pilgrims. When the Mass finally started, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. This celebration of the Eucharist was truly a celebration, complete with excited and catchy songs in several languages, many of which were stuck in my head for the remainder of the pilgrimage.
The next day was the first day in Panama's Old City, where we celebrated our own Mass with special guest Bishop Robert Brennan. The church in which we had this Mass was from the 16th century, but still held onto much of its original architecture and beauty. After spending some more time in the Old City, we traveled to an English-speaking convention, where we heard several talks from religious and lay people alike, as well as some music. One singer was able to get every person in the center on their feet as we sang and danced along while she gave us instructions. This specific singer will remain in my memory for as long as I live, even though I don't believe she ever introduced herself or gave her name. The reason I will always remember her is because she was able to get Bro. Stephen Balletta so filled with excitement, loudly exclaiming his love of the faith with us all! The evening culminated with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a talk from Bishop Robert Barron, famous for his World on Fire YouTube channel and website, and a personal favorite Catholic speaker of mine.
Pope Francis arrived in Panama while we were at the convention, so we did not have a chance to see him until the next day. After giving an excellent introductory speech, he hopped in the Popemobile. We ran from street to street looking for him, unsure of his route, and finally saw the flashing lights of his motorcade. The elation which quickly rose from the crowd is almost indescribable – people were hopping on their friends' shoulders, others were praying, others were crying tears of joy. This would be one of three times I saw the Pope during the course of the trip, and it wasn't even the closest I got to him, but it was certainly the most impactful due to the sheer volume of people there with us.
The following days were spent on Church tours throughout the Old City and watching a vigil presided over by the Pope himself, as well listening to a moving speech from the Pontiff on the importance of young people in the world. I was lucky enough to go on a small excursion with Bros. Timothy and Kenneth as well as one Kellenberg student to visit the Cathedral of Panama City, which had been previously closed to the public when we were on our group church tour. Our final full day was spent watching the Pope celebrate the Closing Mass of World Youth Day and announcing Lisbon, Portugal as the location of the next World Youth Day. After this we celebrated our own closing Mass which was followed by a day of relaxation and mingling.
While World Youth Day is all about getting to know young Catholics from all around the world, I found the most enriching introductions took place at the dinner tables. Whether I was finally meeting someone I have gone to school with for the past four years, or a totally new face from Kellenberg, I was making new friends every night. This pilgrimage was both incredibly spiritually uplifting as well as socially refreshing for someone like me, who would not necessarily be labelled as a "social butterfly". We were able to spend hours upon hours hanging out with each other, whether it was during the excitement of an official World Youth Day event or a Province of Meribah specific event. I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to go on this trip, not only because it was my first international trip, but because of the spiritual and social benefits I was awarded. I will always remember the experiences I had as well as the friends I met and the relationships I grew.