Over two days Sydney World Youth Day pilgrimistas would welcome Francis in a riot of noise and happiness, later ply Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP with the deepest questions they had about the meaning of life and then join the Pope again the following day for a poignant performance of the Way of the Cross.
And it was all despite the intense tropical heat and the crush At Cinta Costera in Panama City.
But waiting to welcome Francis they stood in line, talking, texting, chanting, waving Aussie flags and singing songs.
In the hot tropical humidity it took hours in the queues to reach the waterside venue, experiencing – at times – the stressful crush of thousands of others surrounding them as they made their way through security checks.
But those who managed to get an up-close view of the Pope said the wait was well worth it.
Sydney pilgrim Julia Torrisi said “It was really encouraging, definitely, to know that there’s so many people from all around the whole world that wanted to come to see the Pope.”
She described the atmosphere of the gathering with Francis as one of “massive excitement” to see him.
Meanwhile, she said, Francis’s appreciation of the difficulties faced by many pilgrims to get to Panama when he announced to the massive crowd “I know it wasn’t easy for you to get here,” was a special moment that resonated with everyone.
Chants of “Estaes la juventud del Papa” (“We are the youth of the Pope”) could be heard everywhere, as the young people were visibly thrilled at the presence of the Holy Father amongst them.
He didn’t disappoint. Greeting the massive crowd, he said: “Today I am happy to say to you: Peter is with you, to celebrate and renew you in faith and hope.”
Knowing that many of the pilgrims see World Youth Day as a great step in their journey of faith, the Pope assured them that – by taking the first step – they were already disciples.
“A disciple is not merely someone who arrives at a certain place, but one who sets out decisively, who is not afraid to take risks and keeps walking,” he said. This meant that everyone who had travelled to World Youth Day were already disciples!
And that – discipleship – was the theme of the day.
Earlier, the Sydney pilgrims attended their second catechesis session, delivered by English Bishop Alan Williams, who also happens to hold a PhD in Experimental Science.
He encouraged them to look to Mary as the perfect model of discipleship.
“At any point in the Gospels, who is Mary looking at? Who is she thinking about? Who is she talking about?” Bishop Williams asked them. “Jesus.” Like Mary, he said, a disciple needed to be totally focused on Christ.
His own journey to the priesthood was deeply linked to Mary’s intercession: he had stopped going to Mass for three years before conversations and encounters with others who were following Christ led him to seek out prayer and, eventually, a return to the Church.
Mary decisive in our lives
“I crept slowly, cautiously, back to Mass,” he said. “I wanted to pray – but how do you start praying when you’ve stopped for years? I was given a Rosary, and I still have it,” he said.
The question in the hearts of many of the World Youth Day pilgrims, “What do you want from me, Lord?” is the most important question in the world, he said.
And if they brought their desires and ambitions to God, Bishop Williams told the crowd, He would not disappoint them.
Breakfast with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP
The following morning, breakfast with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP was first business of the day for Sydney pilgrims, followed by a lengthy Q&A back and forth between the young pilgrimistas and their archbishop.
Later the group were to take the long walk to Cinta Costera to participate in the Way of the Cross, but first Archbishop Fisher invited students to ask him any question on their minds. They took him up on his offer.
Questions ranged from the problem of suffering and evil in the world to vocations and addictions, with the Archbishop both listening to the concerns of the young and the challenges they face, and offering some advice about how to prepare for them.
“I think you’ll find in life, when the big challenges come, it’s the person you bring to the challenge that’s so important,” he said.
He encouraged pilgrims to prepare today for the challenges they will face in the future. Just as an athlete trains for a competition, so they must train in virtue, he said.
“Build up those spiritual and moral muscles,” he told them.
It was clear that being able to ask virtually anything of a senior Church leader and get a candid reply was enjoyed by everyone – questioners and those listening.
It seemed completely in the spirit of World Youth Day which aims to help the young experience as deeply as possible an encounter with Christ by bringing the deepest questions and issues affecting their lives to Him as they search for answers.
Following the Q&A, Archbishop Fisher celebrated Mass for the students before joining them for the long walk to Cinta Costera so that they could secure a good spot to see the Way of the Cross presided over by Pope Francis on Friday evening.
To pass the time, Archbishop Fisher played rounds of cards with the students, while continuing some of the conversations that had occurred earlier in the morning.
Joining Jesus in His suffering of Love
Each station on the Way of the Cross featured a reflection from a different Central American country, each prayer focusing on a different theme.
The themes varied widely, ranging from terrorism and corruption to refugees and care for the environment.
Fitting in with the theme being explored by Sydney pilgrims, the final Station of the Cross included a reflection on abortion, and the right of every human being to life.
Francis on the margins: papal visit to Juvenile detention centre
Earlier that day, Francis spoke to young detainees at a penitential liturgy in Las Garzas de Pacora Juvenile Detention Centre in Panama.
The papal visit was entirely in character for the pope who wants to reach out to those on the margins of society everywhere.
Society creates “an adjective culture” that prefers to immediately label people as good or bad rather than truly getting to know them,” he told the young prisoners.
“Gossipers are not interested (in the person). They quickly seek to put a label to get them out of the way. The adjective culture belittles the person,” he said.
Pope Francis traveled by helicopter to the industrial town of Pacora, 30 kilometres east of Panama City. Thousands lined the streets holding banners, balloons and flags welcoming the pope, who waved and smiled as he greeted them from his popemobile.
The detainees – wearing white World Youth Day T-shirts – chanted “Esta es la juventud del papa” (“We are the pope’s youths.”) Many wore rosaries around their necks or held them in their hands.
Upon his arrival, the pope listened to the experience of Luis Oscar Martinez, a young man detained at the prison. Recalling his arrest and subsequent transfer to Las Garzas, Martinez said that, despite the situation, “something told me, ‘It isn’t over.'”
“In that moment,” Martinez recalled, “I understood that God my father was with me. And if I am talking to you right now, it is because of the grace and love of God and my beloved Christ.”
During the penitential liturgy, the pope heard the confessions of five inmates – four young men and a young woman – in a small tent set up outside of the prison, the Vatican said. One of the young men was missing a leg and using crutches. He could not sit down, so the pope stood up to hear his confession.
Back in Panama City, the Sydney pilgrims will rise early tomorrow for the long walk to the World Youth Day vigil.