A Reflection on World Youth Day
“LORD GOD, HELP ME!” was what I whispered to myself as I got on the bus in Santiago de Veraguas, Panama at about 10 pm. I was the last one on — leading this group of 27 young pilgrims to World Youth Day, Panama. I somehow still had it in me to count everyone and make sure there were no stragglers. We pilgrims were staying tough, despite the situation. What was supposed to have been an intense but doable thirteen-hour ride from Heredia, Costa Rica had already tested us for eighteen hours. To make things worse. we still had three and a half hours to go. I was clutching the Pilgrim Voucher — our ticket to everything for World Youth Day. It says I am the group leader, gives the number of pilgrims, and it states “have this voucher with you at all times.” Additionally, and most disappointingly, the voucher instructs me to have my Pilgrim group meet volunteers at St. Augustin school in Santa Maria Ancon, Panama at 5:00 pm that night — yes, 5 hours ago. We were going to be late, very late. “What’s going to happen?” I thought, “There is no way are going to get our pilgrim packets or any food — will we get a place to sleep? Who will be awake to help us at 2 am when we get there?” I had no options but to trust in God. As the leader and logistics-guy for the pilgrimage, I had planned everything out. However I could not have anticipated all of the unforeseen obstacles: the police enforced traffic stops, the five-hour line at the border, or the fact that our priest would insist on saying mass in a parking lot while on the way. Everybody kept saying to me, “how much longer?” I would just smile and reply with whatever optimism I could scrape up. The bus bumped along, and the clock struck midnight, “This is not going to end well,” I thought, “Jesus, I am counting on you.”
Finally, we pulled in to what I thought was the school where we would stay on a gym floor. It was quiet, no one around. I got off the bus and told everyone else to stay on. I wanted to make sure I knew what was going on before I’d give instructions to the pilgrims. However, no one was around, I was confused, anxious, and out of options. The bus driver pointed ahead, saying he thought maybe there were people further down the road. Disheartened, I told him to go ahead. Then, we saw a group of people — laughing, playing guitar, sitting around in their bright green volunteer shirts and singing songs in Spanish. Two women with big Panamanian smiles welcomed us as if we had been right on time; Deborah and Ines. They coordinated with me and gave us bottled water, our pilgrim packets — everything we needed. They arranged with our bus driver to bring us to where we would sleep. Not on a school gym floor as I had expected, but at Deborah’s home and in the homes of her neighbors at a quaint neighborhood in the shadow of the famous Bridge of the Americas on the Pan-American Highway, right next to the Panama Canal. It could not have been more beautiful. The families could not have been more hospitable, more accommodating, more loving! As the pilgrims went group by group into what would become their homes for all of the World Youth Days, I thought: “This could not be more perfect, nice work Jesus!” God definitely provided, and he provided in a way I could have never predicted. As soon as I knew, everyone was safe and in bed, I thanked Deborah for her hospitality and I apologized for arriving so late at night. “What time where you supposed to be here?” she said. “5pm!” I exclaimed. “5pm?” She said with some shock, “It was total chaos here at that hour; you could have all been split up! It was better you came when you did, so we could welcome you with proper love.”
Being in Latin America for World Youth Day was warm in every sense of the term. It was an adventure, a great joy, and to see the Holy Father and the universality of the Church was very special, as one would imagine. However, as I look back on the pilgrimage I am most grateful for how God was gently teaching me to trust, and how the gift of trusting in him can come as a surprise wrapped up in the warmth of those, like Deborah and Ines, who lovingly welcomed us pilgrims.