World Youth Day pilgrims pray before Our Lady of Perpetual Help during opening-day festivities in a Panama City park Jan. 22, 2019. CNS photo/Chaz Muth

Jean Ko Din in Panama: WYD leaves behind a wealth of memories

  • January 29, 2019
Packing up after a pilgrimage, you sort through the souvenirs you’ll bring home. They are reminders of friends made, marvels witnessed and lessons discovered along the way.

But the souvenirs I carried home from World Youth Day (WYD) in Panama are not material. They are what I will carry in my heart.

You can’t plan on who you will meet at WYD. God somehow finds a way to send you to the right people at the right time. I spent each day with a different Canadian pilgrim group and it was a great gift to learn different people’s stories.

I got to know so many people and hear their stories of why they took this pilgrimage. These young people were strangers at the beginning but made me feel a part of their family by the end of the day.

One memory I’ll carry is from the day I followed the pilgrim group from St. Justin Martyr Parish in Markham, Ont. I first met them on the plane to Panama City but, after landing, hadn’t seen them until bumping into the group two days later on my way to the commencement Mass.

It was awkward at first. I tend to be shy around new people but thankfully, they were talkative. I didn’t have to do any of the work. The commencement Mass started at 5:30 p.m. but if the welcoming Mass from the day before was any indication, we knew we had to get there four hours early to avoid being turned away.

It was about a 30-minute brisk walk, hot, sweaty and sticky. When we arrived, all the shaded grass areas were taken so we settled on a paved area with some shadow from the top of a nearby tree. With about four hours to kill, I decided to annoy them with riddles and brain teasers. We played card games. We shared snacks and sunblock. The four hours flew by.

I spent my 28th birthday (Jan. 25) with some friends at Catholic Christian Outreach. This pilgrim group was so happy to be serving fellow pilgrims and not be just mere participants. They spent the week sharing their testimonies and nudging people towards a closer relationship with God.

When they found out it was my birthday, it was like they’d known me their whole life. In normal circumstances, I would have felt like a turtle that wanted to retreat into my shell but because I knew I would not be celebrating my birthday with my normal crowd, I appreciated their generosity.

They sang “Happy Birthday” outside a subway station and other pilgrim groups that were walking by joined in. The love and generosity I felt from strangers is a memory I will carry forever.

This was my third time attending World Youth Day so I knew that the best memories come from unexpected encounters.

My mind was racing, going through a mental to-do list, while on the media bus to the Saturday Vigil (Jan. 26). I almost didn’t notice a man with kind eyes, a black shirt and white collar sit down next to me.

I gave him a polite smile. He asked me where I was from.

Canada, I replied, and you? He said he was a bishop of San Salvador and El Salvador. I realized he was bishop from the diocese of St. Oscar Romero. I was sitting next to the successor of one of the patron saints of WYD.

In an effort to look cool and collected, I kept my amazement to a normal level. My conversation with Bishop José Luis Escobar Alas was actually quite mundane. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish. We sometimes passed my phone back and forth and typed simple sentences into a translator.

I told him that I was born in the Philippines and he lit up. He said he was a fan of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Archdiocese of Manila. Like many others, he thinks that Tagle would make a great pope after Francis.

Alas said he had met Tagle a few times and found the Philippine cardinal to be gentle, but also magnetic. “It’s a very, very important job,” he said in Spanish. Based on my own short experience with Tagle, I had to agree.

Later, I was lost in Plaza de Francia looking for an English Adoration site. Suddenly, there was a commotion down one of the side streets. I saw photographers rushing to get in position to get the best shot. A procession was slowly forming and smack dab in the middle was Tagle with maybe a hundred Philippine pilgrims waving many different flags.

For a split second, I was confused. This wasn’t on any official itineraries at WYD. The procession was just something the pilgrims thought they could do and so they did it.

In the next second, I was in awe of Tagle’s smile and awed to be with these young people and part of their joy. A heart for young people is definitely a pre-requisite for pope.

Working as a journalist at something as large and unpredictable as WYD was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. Finding stories across the city was difficult when traffic was a mess and road closures seemed to be random.

Chasing down interviews and arranging meetings became almost impossible when phone service was unreliable.

But even in the busy-ness of my work, God found a way to punch through and give me moments to encounter Him. In between getting home from the Saturday vigil at 10:30 p.m. and waking up again at 1:30 a.m. to get on a media bus for the Sunday closing Mass, I found my physical limit. I was exhausted and couldn’t think straight.

But then around dawn, I decided to walk out into Metro Park where pilgrims were beginning to stir from a sticky night sleeping outdoors. They looked just as exhausted as I was but they were still excited to be there. It lifted my spirits to know we were all going through the same thing.

It reminded me that we were there to celebrate together because God called each of us to be there in that moment, to be with Him.

Everyone has reasons to take part in a pilgrimage like this. Again and again, I heard pilgrims say they wanted to see what a universal Church truly looked like. They wanted to attend Mass and Adoration with the Pope. They wanted to meet young people from different parts of the world who shared the same faith.

But at the same time, I think each pilgrim also has a very personal reason, something negotiated between God and themselves. It might be about discerning their vocation or a relationship. Some were taking the next step in the deep dive of their faith and some were just trying to test the waters.

God called us all to be together with each other and with Him. He chose to use the blistering heat, the arduous walks, the lack of bathrooms and the cheap street food in the name of His glory. They all became small crucibles that helped us prove to ourselves that He mattered more than any suffering we could endure. Without fail, His consolation flooded over our tiredness and weariness.

This is why people walk out of WYD like they’ve been changed forever. They realize that when we rely on God for consolation, everything else is cheap distraction.

Last modified on January 29, 2019

Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.