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Panama’s Chinese Catholics welcome World Youth Day pilgrims

PANAMA CITY (UCAN): The Chinese Catholic community in Panama City, Panama, received Chinese pilgrims to World Youth Day 2019, held in Panama from January 22 to 27 from, and shared their experiences of evangelising as more people turn to Protestant Churches. 
On January 26, the Chinese Catholic Foundation of Panama invited Bishop Thomas Chung An-zu of Chiayi, Taiwan to celebrate Mass at St. Martha’s Church, near the city’s Chinatown. He was in the country to give catechesis to Chinese-speaking young people as part of the World Youth Day calendar of events.
Around 400 young people and their host families, including pilgrims from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, as well as ethnic Chinese from Australia, Malaysia and the United States of America, along with two Chinese volunteers, attended the Mass.
Megan Chen, who was born to Chinese parents in Panama and can speak some Cantonese, said she was initially confused at hearing her peers singing hymns in Putonghua.
The 20-year-old described hearing Mass in her native tongue as a rare joy. She was used to services with only a quarter or an eighth as many people, she said.
She explained that the local ethnic Chinese community celebrates Mass twice a week, but the services are mostly in Spanish, with some parts read in other languages, for example, the liturgy is conducted in Cantonese, while the psalm and other readings are proclaimed in Putonghua. She said the gospel is usually read by a priest from the mainland China while the homily is in, Putonghua and Spanish.
Referring to a passage taken from the gospel of St. Luke, Bishop Chung asked attendees to remember to bless the houses of their host families.
After sharing a dim sum meal, the pilgrims set off to attend the vigil with Pope Francis at Campo San Juan Pablo II followed the next morning by the concluding Mass of World Youth Day.
Chen said she was inspired by their presence to continue her evangelisation efforts in this Catholic-majority Central American nation of four million people, an estimated 70 per cent of whom identify as Catholic.
She said many of her Putonghua-speaking Chinese friends in Panama had been put off by the lack of services in a language they felt most comfortable with.
As a result, had ended up drifting to other Christian Churches with Putonghua-speaking pastors who could more easily teach them the Bible and explain its intricacies.
Like many young people around the world, her friends were also “attracted to the energy and music” and general vibrancy of the kind of services held at Protestant Churches, Chen added.
To bring the Gospel to Chinese residing in Panama, Johnny Wong, president of the Catholic foundation, said that an hour-long, weekly radio programme had been launched with a local station, Radio Maria, which is hugely popular in Latin America.
Called Jesús Habla Chino (Jesus speaks Chinese), the programme features members sharing their faith and personal experiences in Cantonese.
Wong said language classes using biblical texts as teaching materials were another strategy to attract Chinese people to learn about the Catholic faith.
He said he hopes to run regular Spanish classes for Chinese children as well as Chinese classes for people of Chinese descent up to the fifth generation.
The foundation has already requested the local archdiocese to grant it a permanent venue to minister to Chinese people, Wong added.
Given the fresh connections established during World Youth Day, Wong came up with the idea of inviting a Cantonese-speaking priest from Hong Kong to assist in ministering to the Chinese pilgrims who were only there for a few days.
The parish priest, who asked not to be named, drove nearly two hours from his home in another part of Panama to celebrate two Masses a week.
Rosa Lili Young, one of the catechists, said the mission of the foundation was to “help people with no religion to know Jesus Christ.”
Speaking in both Spanish and English, she said that while most immigrants clung tightly to their Chinese culture, few of the younger generation were fluent in Putonghua or Cantonese.
She said that a privately-run Chinese school in Panama City had now started to allow the foundation to provide faith formation for their mostly Chinese-Panamanian, Cantonese-speaking students.

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