Panama City, Panama, Jan 26, 2019 / 11:54 am
Amid large and very vocal delegations from Latin America at World Youth Day, pilgrims from all across Asia are also in attendance. The Church in Asia is growing, even as the faithful in several countries face challenges such as increasing secularization or outright hostility from their governments.
Hundreds of Korean pilgrims packed the Santuario Nacional del Corazon de Maria Wednesday morning. The Archdiocese of Seoul sent 31 pilgrims, and other dioceses in Korea sent large groups as well. At an event for English-speaking pilgrims earlier this week, groups from Malaysia and India were also prominent.
Two young pilgrims from Hong Kong, Constance Lau and Judy Fan, told CNA that churches offer lots of activities available for young people in Hong Kong, even though Catholics make up just eight percent of the population. Approximately 500 pilgrims from Hong Kong attended the last World Youth Day in Krakow.
"There are many churches in Hong Kong, in different districts," Judy told CNA.
"Although each church might only have a limited number of people, they all have their own connection, and different districts will have their own events or activities sometime or another. So we teenagers can join Mass, and some gatherings like barbeques…So what we are trying to do is to get more teenagers back to the Church, and just enjoy their time together."
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and practices limited self-government. In mainland China, the Communist government is waging a brutal crackdown on religion and is oppressing Chinese Catholics, even to the point of bulldozing churches.
The crackdown comes in the wake of a September 2018 deal between the Holy See and the Chinese government aimed at allowing members of the so-called underground Catholic Church, who are recognized by the Vatican, to practice their faith openly. The Vatican has since officially recognized several government-appointed bishops who had been ordained without the Vatican's permission.
Although it was reported before the start of World Youth Day that there would be seven pilgrims from mainland China attending World Youth Day, they appear to be keeping a low profile. Anecdotally, pilgrims have told CNA that they suspect the Chinese pilgrims will not be carrying a flag for fear of reprisal by the Chinese government.
Despite their proximity to mainland China, Constance and Judy were much more positive about their experience being Catholic in Hong Kong.
"In Hong Kong it's ok, we should have our freedom," Constance said.
"We are different from China, and so in Hong Kong [being Catholic is] ok."
Judy spoke about how exciting it is to be in a different country, where they don't speak the language, and yet are still able to participate in the sacraments with the other pilgrims.
"We don't really know Spanish here, but we know what's happening in the Mass," she said.
"In Hong Kong, the music [at Mass] is more subtle. But coming here, to Central America, you can say that the only difference is the music. The music here is a lot more passionate; in Hong Kong, the Mass, it fits our personality. It more subtle, more expressive, more traditional," she said.
Constance was chosen to be a representative of the continent of Asia, joining Pope Francis on the main stage and receiving from him a rosary.
"I was really thrilled and excited. I held hands with Pope Francis," Constance said with a huge grin.
Anthony Diep, a Vietnamese seminarian who now lives in Australia, said although his family in Vietnam was responsible for nurturing his faith, the wider culture made it difficult to be a Christian. In Vietnam just seven percent of the population is Catholic and the vast majority of people adhere either to folk religion or no religion at all.
"As you know, Vietnam is a country where Christianity has a lot of problems with the government," he said.
"As for me, I was born in a strong Catholic family, and I came to Mass every day at 4:30 am, and I got my vocation from my family. But I think also that when I went to university I realized that we have been influenced by communist ideals…in my class in university, only I was a Catholic, out of nearly 37 students. When I try to talk about God in public, I was not accepted by a lot of my classmates and teachers," Diep said.
He said when he tries to gather with his friends to pray in public, he often would run afoul of the Vietnamese police.
"I think that persecution helps us to grow in faith, so I thank God for the example of many saints in our Church in Vietnam, who help us to keep going and to fight through difficulties that would put us down."
The 15th international World Youth Day in Panama City ends tomorrow, Jan. 26, with a closing Mass with Pope Francis.