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One faith unites World Youth Day pilgrims

PANAMA CITY (CNS): Jorge Soto wore a wrestling mask typical of Lucha Libre fighters in Mexico and every few steps he took, others would sidle up to have a picture taken with him. The mask was fun to wear and it was something associated with his native country, which he said he was proud to represent at 2019 World Youth Day in Panama.
Other pilgrims wore the flags of their respective countries like a cape on their backs: Australia, El Salvador, Guatemala. Though World Youth Day had not officially started, it seemed as if it unofficially began on January 21 on the observation deck overlooking the locks of the Panama Canal, where the young—and the young-at-heart— formed a conga line as some beat the drums and others chanted or cheered to honour the Catholic Church, Pope Francis or Mary.
It’s a time when “you feel good about everything,” Soto said, attending his second World Youth Day, an experience he said helps him meet an international cast of thousands of young Catholics and find meaning in life and in his faith.
As his native country struggles with secularism, he said, “It’s up to us to come up with solutions and help others not slip away from their lives of faith.” Part of what World Youth Day provides, he said, is a kinship and strength in spiritual beliefs, even if people come from different parts of the world.
For 16-year-old Charlie Martin of Australia, it was an opportunity to come in contact with a physical reality of a Catholic Church that was alive in the Americas centuries before his native country became an independent nation in 1901, one told by the many historic buildings where Catholics in the region worship and where they have built lives of faith. But he also experienced different expressions of that faith than he’s used to.
“It’s been amazing, you feel like a celebrity,” he said, explaining the warm greetings expressed by Panamanians when they see the pilgrims walking about. 
Indeed, locals wave at buses carrying pilgrims and local businesses have placed posters on storefronts welcoming them and Pope Francis to Panama.
“It’s been amazing,” said 15-year-old Aubrey Tedd, also travelling with Martin. “Everyone comes together with great energy.”
Though it was clear that some did not speak the same language, they still stopped to shake hands, to sing, to have photos taken together and ultimately, to spontaneously dance near the Panama Canal with people they had never met but with whom they shared some of their deepest set of beliefs.
Though most were just passing through to visit the canal, it became clear, by the flags, by the wearing of pins featuring saints and crucifixes around their necks, that most of those gathered at the site of the historic waterway had arrived for more than just tourism. 
So, though there was no official plan, some, perhaps inspired by the spirit, just began shouting: “Que viva la virgen!”  cheering on the Virgin Mary. “Que viva el papa!” they shouted, cheering on the pope. They also began shouting into the warm winds near the canal: “Esta es la juventud del papa!” or “This is the pope’s youth.”
Their joy made 30-year-old seminarian, Hien Vu, of Xuan Loc, Vietnam, smile.
“I want to experience this enthusiasm,” he said. “And see the hope of the Catholic Church.”
Jose Gonzalez, a Protestant who was visiting the canal with his Catholic wife, Silvia Lopez, from Huehuetango, Guatemala, enjoyed the moment. 
“We’d heard good things about (World Youth Day),” from one of his brothers, Gonzalez said, adding that he was looking for something he and his wife could benefit from spiritually. 
He said that people with different beliefs need not be at odds with one another, or be afraid to learn from what the other might be able to teach because the goal is the same: unity and the need to make the world better.

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