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The making of Panama 2019

The second international preparatory meeting for World Youth Day (WYD) 2019 took place in Panama City, Panama, from June 6 to 10. More than 120 delegates from around 88 countries representing different episcopal conferences, territories and youth movements met to hear from the Local Organising Committee (the body directly in charge of looking after all the details related to the youth event) on how the requirements are being met for the WYD. 
The gathering was supported by officials from the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and our days in Panama were already a foretaste of what is coming in January 2019.  Organising the World Youth Day is a huge but joyful mission. Huge because of the demands of hosting such an event and joyful because of how it gathers so many people together as members of the same Christian family.
In his introductory message, Kevin Cardinal Farrell, head of the Dicastery for Laity (speaking via a recorded video message) thanked all the participants on behalf of Pope Francis and encouraged them to animate their respective young people so that the Panama meeting could be an opportunity to celebrate the faith and to come together as one Church, the Church of Christ who is calling us to be his followers. 
Among other speakers, Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulla Mendes of Panama City, expressed his gratitude to the Church and to the pope for choosing Panama as the host country of the WYD 2019. 
“We are a poor and simple Church. A Church that strives to welcome in a good way all who come to our homeland. Welcome to Panama!” the archbishop said;  words that summarised the spirit of Panama: a welcoming place.
Delegates were keen on gathering updates on matters such as registration, security, accommodation, healthcare, volunteering system, and guidelines on pastoral and spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage. Representatives from different departments of the Local Organising Committee as well as officials from the government agencies directly involved in the preparation of the WYD took turns to share about matters entrusted to their care. 
From the health department (for example, vaccines against yellow fever are recommended by certain delegations prior to entering Panama) to visa procedures, from host families to pastoral care, details were explained so that delegates would have a clear idea of how serious the preparations are on.
Panama being a small country, organising such an event requires seeing and thinking bigger than its historical and geographical limitations. That is why Costa Rica and Nicaragua will join forces in hosting the Days in Dioceses, which are important experiences that help put people in touch with local realities and cultures. 
With an “8-8-8” formula, the three countries will each have eight dioceses that will accommodate the pilgrims. As such, 24 dioceses are getting ready to welcome and share their homes with registered members of the WYD. This is another mission that requires good coordination. The presence of delegations from Costa Rica and Nicaragua to introduce their countries to the participants (mainly in the corridors outside of the meeting hall) was a sign that joy is spread even far beyond the Panamanian borders. Muchas gracias!
Some meetings are known for some unexpected moments. This one too was one of those meetings when a big “wow” was a part of the play. The visit of the president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, was quite a surprise as it didn’t figure anywhere on the agenda of the meeting. His presence sent a clear message on how seriously the country is dealing with the preparations for the WYD. 
I personally did not expect the president to directly answer some of the questions from the participants and to even stay for lunch. Yes, he did! 
A great supporter of the WYD, he did not fail to mention his personal experiences of the previous WYDs, the time he spent at the beach in Brazil and his spiritual journey in Poland. How he wished to disguise himself as an “ordinary” pilgrim and escape the surveillance of secret service!
We had the chance to visit the sites that will host the main events with Pope Francis, the youth festival, the Vocations Fair, the Reconciliation zone and all the other pastoral aspects of the international meeting. Again, the Local Committee has done a beautiful job in planning all these aspects. 
A lot more are still coming as the event will have to be handled in five different languages—Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and French—to better serve the pilgrims in their very needs. This too requires not only a huge amount of time but also a strong team of committed volunteers. Go, Panama!
In Panama, we witnessed the hospitality that will characterise the event in January. People, at least some of those who welcomed us on behalf of the local people, showed us that where there is joy, things are possible. They were also committed to helping us and to answering our questions with kindness and attention. 
The dimension of the universality of the Church is something that is always felt and lived during WYD experiences. We came together as one Church, one family to share with others about the faith that unites us in Christ. 
It was often mentioned during our meeting that the WYD is first and foremost a pilgrimage, not a planned tour, a cruise or a summer fun-party. This dimension of Christ as the bridge that connects people from all horizons is already felt in Panama. And it was also an invitation from the organisers to go and share the beauty of this universality in Christ with the young people who wish to attend the international Church event. In Panama, it was universality in one place.
In case you have questions and ideas to suggest for a better planning of the WYD, just visit it will keep you in touch with people with a great smile. They are happily committed to serving you. But remember, also, that flexibility, patience and adaptation are key elements for a better WYD experience. 
¡Bienvenidos todos a Panamá!
(Welcome all to Panama!)

Father Dominique Mukonda CICM
Chairperson, Diocesan Youth Commission