Having attended a world-class retreat led by Pope Francis, New York archdiocesan pilgrims returned from World Youth Day Panama 2019 renewed in their faith journey, and cherishing the moment as a joyful turning point they will always remember.
The 44 young adult pilgrims and nine coordinators returned the day after the conclusion of the Jan. 22-27 Panama gathering. A grand highlight was when one of the New York pilgrims, Josue Rosario Cruz, 24, took part in the Way of the Cross led by Pope Francis the evening of Jan. 25 at Santa Maria La Antigua Field.
“I was really excited. I was, like, feeling nervous—I was all over the place. But once the Holy Father came on stage, I just felt a sense of peace come over me, you know,” Cruz, a parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua in the Bronx, told Catholic New York the next morning in the lobby of Hotel El Panama in downtown Panama City, where the group was staying.
Cruz was visibly overjoyed and still elated as he sat next to Mercedes Espaillat, mother of Father Joseph Espaillat, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua. Cruz has a close relationship with the Espaillat family.
“Honestly, it was amazing. I can now hear the voice of God a lot clearer than I could before. After seeing the Holy Father there, after the Via Crucis, it felt as if that’s what happened…The greatest part about it was U.S.A. had the privilege, just like Panama, to stand the closest to the pope up the stairs of the stage, about 10 feet away— for a good five to 10 seconds, we were, like, right there with the pope!”
Pope Francis spoke about the meaning of the Way of the Cross, the path of suffering, and he gave a special blessing.
Cruz spoke with CNY as the New York group and other pilgrims were getting their camping gear ready before starting the long walking trek to St. John Paul II Field for the daylong and overnight vigil leading to the closing Mass by Pope Francis the morning of Jan. 27.
Mary Elise Zellmer, assistant director of the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Outreach, some moments after CNY spoke with Cruz, said, “The USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) reached out to me and asked me to recommend a person (for the Way of the Cross). I just think that he (Cruz) is so vibrant and full of life, and I thought that he would do great job representing us. He’s a true New Yorker and he just seemed to have it all.”
After WYD Panama 2019 was over, Ms. Zellmer wrote via email, “These are some really special young people. I know they won’t leave what they encountered and learned behind in Panama, but will bring it with them to the Archdiocese of New York.”
Cynthia Psencik, director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry, wrote, “Being a part of this week helped me to witness the beauty of God’s Church. We were all here because we love our faith.”
Pilgrims from Latin America, the United States and all over the world were, at different moments of their experiences, visibly joyful, emotional, serene and in deep prayer during the field gatherings led by Pope Francis and others. Musical performances were at times soft and contemplative, and at times loud and festive.
In the hour leading to the pope’s 8 a.m. closing Mass Jan. 27, many men, women and children—unofficial WYD pilgrims—were walking toward St. John Paul II Field to witness the historic event, significantly adding to crowd estimates that had been predicted. Attendance at the vigil service was 600,000.
“I’ve met people from all over the world. It’s something that’s really nice,” one of the New York pilgrims, Moises Cepeda, 18, told Catholic New York Jan. 26. “It’s been a great experience, seeing all the different countries coming together,” said Cepeda, a parishioner of St. Gabriel and St. Joseph in New Rochelle, of the faith-filled gathering.
Junelle Addei, 20, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception in the Bronx, said, “I’m really loving this. It is the most at peace that I’ve been, but also energetic—it’s the two emotions in one. It makes me very grateful to have this experience.”
Father Espaillat said WYD “means a lot for their spiritual growth. It is very powerful and meaningful.
“I believe there are a lot of fruits that will be coming from this, not only in vocations, but also just young people committed to Christ and to the Church.”
In addition to Ms. Zellmer and Ms. Psencik, the other lead coordinators were Colin T. Nykaza, director of the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Outreach; and Daniel Genn, associate director of the Youth Ministry office.
The other coordinators were Father Espaillat; Sister Milagro Mercado Parra, S.C.R., director of religious education at St. Anthony of Padua; Father Benjamin Palacios, parochial vicar at St. Gabriel and St. Joseph parish; Brother Tyrone A. Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry (OBM); and Leah T. Dixon, associate director of OBM.
“This (WYD) can help young people discover their vocation—and to strengthen their faith,” Father Palacios said before all left the Hotel El Panama lobby and headed for the vigil. “They can help to build a new Church—a stronger Church.”
In his homily during the WYD closing Mass, delivered in Spanish, Pope Francis told the young pilgrims:
“You are not the future but the now of God, and He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents and elders, to stand up with them, to speak out and realize the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you…Thank you. Your faith and joy have made Panama, America and the entire world shake…We are on a journey. Keep walking, keep living the faith and share it.”
Catholic New York reporter Armando Machado was born in Colón, Panama, and raised in the Bronx. The WYD Panama 2019 assignment, in his native country, was of exceptional significance for him, as a journalist, a Catholic and a son of Panama.