Tired but happy, young pilgrims head home

“Wake up, wake up. It’s time to exercise!”

This was the somewhat cruel 6am alarm played over the loudspeaker at the John Paul II Field in Panama City, waking pilgrims from their sleep and readying them for the closing Mass of World Youth Day.

The Mass was the final event of the World Youth Day week, with hundreds of thousands joining the Holy Father for the Mass.

As pilgrims cheer, an unknown Australian pilgrim waves an inflatable plastic kangaroo before Pope Francis’s celebration of Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field in Panama City on 27 January. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Don’t wait to begin, Francis urges

With the blend of characteristic directness and homespun spiritual wisdom and advice that has become a hallmark of his papacy, Pope Francis urged the young not to wait for some distant future to offer their ‘yes’ to God.

“You too, dear young people, can experience [the domestication and impoverishing of the Gospel] whenever you think that your mission, your vocation, even your life itself, is a promise far off in the future, having nothing to do with the present – as if being young were a kind of waiting room, where we sit around until we are called.

“And in the “meantime,” we adults – or you yourselves – invent a hygienically sealed future, without consequences, where everything is safe, secure and “well insured” … a “make-believe” happiness.

So we “tranquilise” you, we numb you into keeping quiet, not asking or questioning; and in that “meantime” your dreams lose their buoyancy, they begin to become flat and dreary, petty and plaintive. [But this is] only because we think, or you think, that your ‘now’ has not yet come, that you are too young to be involved in dreaming about and working for the future.

A couple wake up before Pope Francis’ celebration of Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field on 27 January. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Papal advice: You are God’s ‘now.’ Don’t waste your life

However, Francis told an estimated 600,000 pilgrims from around the globe, living in the present moment and finding God’s will is what is most important.

“You, dear young people, are not the future but the now of God. He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents, your elders, to stand up and, with them, to speak out and realise the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you.”

A huge cheer rang out when, at the end of the Mass, Pope Francis announced that the next World Youth Day, due to take place in 2022, would be held in Lisbon, Portugal.

Pilgrims head home

As the pilgrims began their walk back from the Mass, a local parish in Panama City had organised a collection centre for unwanted items. Pilgrims were happy to donate their sleeping bags and mats, as well as uneaten food items for the city’s homeless.

Before boarding his flight to Rome, Pope Francis met with volunteers from World Youth Day.  All up, there were 19,500 registered volunteers for the event, an extraordinary number given that the number of registered pilgrims totalled only 110,000, making Panama 2019 one of the smallest World Youth Days ever.

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While key events attracted several times that number – such as the Vigil which saw an estimated 600,000 pilgrims participate – this meant that there was approximately one volunteer for every six registered pilgrims.

When Pope Francis arrived in Panama City several days earlier, digital signs throughout the city bore the message: “Bienvenido Papa Francisco” (Welcome, Pope Francis). As he departed to return to Rome, they now read: “Gracias.”

No translation was required.