Theresa Austin, chaperone for the Alaskan group, told CNA that leaving the Alaskan winter for Central American summer was quite a change for the young pilgrims, and that it was difficult to prepare for the physical challenges of being a pilgrim at World Youth Day. Temperatures have stayed around 90 degrees Fahrenheit all week in Panama City, and the Alaskan group, lacking a bus for transport, has been walking 8-9 miles a day.
“[The temperature] was in the single digits when we left [Alaska],” she said.
“In the middle of winter, it’s very difficult to get the kids trained up. Especially for the heat.”
The Alaskan students cited the physical challenges of being a pilgrim, but several said being from such an outdoors-focused state has helped.
“Being from Alaska, you get a lot of opportunities to do outdoor stuff like that, and so I’m a bit more used to walking around a lot because we literally walk everywhere,” Antonia Duran, 18, told CNA.
Austin said the Alaskan pilgrims were in Costa Rica the week before World Youth Day, participating in a short mission and service trip, before embarking on a 25-hour bus ride to Panama City. She said the mission trip was a wonderful opportunity for the pilgrims to get to know each other before WYD.
Many of the other pilgrims in attendance bonded over their common knowledge of English, even if they came from different countries. A group of four pilgrims, all of whom were originally from Vietnam, met and became friends at World Youth Day and attended the Fiat event. Nearly all are expats: Two now live in France, while another now lives in Australia and hopes soon to be ordained a priest after studying for nearly eight years.
“We had a very surprising meeting,” Francisco Ndoc, a Vietnamese pilgrim, told CNA.
“Some Vietnamese from France, one from Australia, and myself, from Vietnam,” he said.
Anthony Diep, a Vietnamese seminarian who now lives in Australia, just finished his pastoral year and has about two years remaining before becoming a priest. He said he faced many challenges to his faith when he lived in Vietnam, including occasional harassment by the police.
“Today, a lot of people have inspired me greatly because they share in the experience of encountering Christ, so that inspires me,” Diep told CNA.
The event included addresses from several U.S. bishops, including Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas and Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport. In his speech Caggiano did not shy away from speaking about the sexual abuse crisis and a need for reform for the Church, telling young people that they will be the ones responsible for helping to purify the Church going forward.
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“I think it’s a twofold message: first to be encouraged in their own pursuit of holiness, that the families of those around them should not deter them from asking what He wants me to do,” Caggiano told CNA after the event.
“And the second is to be encouraged by all these young people that feel the same way...The Church needs to be in some ways purified and renewed, but they are going to be at the front lines of doing that. They just need to be mentored and guided. And that’s what we’re here to do.”
“What I’m hoping is that this will be a celebration of joy,” the bishop said.
“Joy is that sense that God will take care of us even when we’re troubled, even when we’re tempted to be discouraged and even to despair. We can’t do that; that’s not an option for a believer...My pilgrims, they leave school, they sacrifice to come here- this is not a nonchalant decision, it really takes a lot of effort and a lot of commitment. So my hope is that they realize that if they can do this small thing, then they can do a big thing, which is to accept the invitation to live a real life of holiness.”
Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life told CNA that the conversations she’s had with young people so far have been very encouraging.
“The conversations I’ve had so far have been so beautiful, because the young people from every country that I’ve encountered – Malaysia, Uruguay, here in Panama itself, and also in the United States, Australia – the ends of the earth are coming,” she said.