Up nice and early this morning and set off for the centre of town with Teresa Cavalho, who works for the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales. It’s a thirty minute journey by taxi. She had a meeting with the Bishops of England and Wales, which I didn’t want to crash. Our Bishops are not staying there; it must be one of the most expensive hotels in Panama. Another national episcopal conference is staying there, won’t reveal which one, but I don’t think Pope Francis would approve, I’m not sure Jesus Christ would approve for that matter.
I then proceeded to the place where we were to have catechesis and it was there that I had my breakfast; it only cost $4.50. The catechetical centre was the same place we had been for the last three days: San Francis de Calcida Parish. Today I went to the back of the field in order to hear confessions. Once again my heart melted at the goodness, honesty and sincerity of these young people. I stayed hearing confessions during mass, thus breaking one of my rules, which is not to hear confessions while mass is going on. However, I thought this was an extra ordinary situation.
The catechesis and mass finished at about 12.00. Then a group of us from the Westminster Diocese went off to a supermarket where we ordered our lunch. We have in a voucher and got the lunch free, Well it was not actually free as we all paid something to World Youth Day before we left to cover such things as meals and the kit. On our way there a taxi driver saw Fr Mark: Mark is wearing clerical dress: black shirt and collar, I have a clerical collar but wearing a blue world youth day teeshirt over my clerical shirt. I asked Mark if he’d ever blessed a taxi-driver before. He smiled and said, not while he was driving a car. Faith is real here.
From the supermarket we got a bus to as near as we could to the venue where we were going to have the Stations of the Cross with the Pope. We arrived at about 2.30 so had four hours to wait in the blazing sunshine. Our group decided to remain in the sun while most others sought the shade; there’s something coming to mind about “only mad dogs and englishmen go out in the midday sun.” I’m going to have a hard time convincing my fellow friars that I have been working hard when I go back with a suntan!
We were entertained on video screens from the distant stage while we waited and waited, in the blistering sun. The temperature was 33 C but felt like 38 C. It was relaxing to sit and wait, if a little hot. We watched as some young lads played football in what seemed like a dry paddling pool. Others danced to the samba music. I thought this wasn’t really conducive to preparing for Stations of the Cross, but what else do you do?
Eventually the Pope arrived. This time no drive past. And we were straight into the service. It was different to any stations of the Cross I’d done before. The first station: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; the second: Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested; the third: Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin. It was also different in its format; there was the traditional prayer: ‘We adore you O Christ and we praise you’ that was followed by a quote from Pope Francis, then a reflection, followed by a prayer and then lastly the familiar words, ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to you word’; which is the theme of World Youth Day. The words were accompanied by music and dance: about 20 dancers, men and women, all dressed in white. The overall effect: music, dance and words was quite dramatic. then the cross was carried from one different part of the huge double tiered stage to another, each time, 14 times, by representatives of different countries. The last was Panama, which got a great cheer. I was touched when I noticed that they kept Nicaragua till the one before Panama.
I was moved by the whole experience, it was powerful. Pope Francis spoke at the end, with words of encouragement to the young. We shall see him again tomorrow night at the Vigil. Only it will be in a different part of town, 15 kms away, on foot.
Leaving the place wasn’t easy. As soon as people saw the Union Jack many came up and wanted photos, or to exchanges medals of cards or wrist bands. I have so much on my wrist now I’m beginning to look like a hippy. But it’s all part of the wonderful experience that is World Youth Day. Last night I walked home but that created a little blister so tonight I took the metro and a bus back to our place. But everywhere we travelled there were lots of young pilgrims. I shall not forget this experience in a hurry. Until tomorrow. God bless.