Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Seventeen people — six adults, one young adult and 10 youth — representing the Diocese of Richmond set out early Saturday, Jan. 19, to celebrate their faith with pilgrims from across the globe at World Youth Day (WYD) in Panama City.

The group spent a week attending various events with the theme, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). 

Katie Yankoski, associate director for youth and young adults with the diocese’s Office for Evangelization, attended World Youth Day as a young adult in Krakow, Poland in 2016; this year she led the diocese’s contingent to Panama.

“World Youth Day is different from other conferences because everyone is outside their comfort zone. You see the universal Church in a different way than you would anywhere else because so many people from so many places are there worshipping together,” she said of the event St. Pope John Paul II established in 1986. 

The cost for each participant was $3,000. Many parishes helped meet the cost with partial or full scholarships for their participants. 

This was the first event of such a grand scale for many of the diocese’s delegation, who had varying degrees of interest in World Youth Day before signing up to go to Panama. 

Madylan Scott, a high school junior and member of Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach, hadn’t heard of World Youth Day until her youth minister mentioned it. 

“When I started researching, it was like I was being called to go. It was like ‘this is something you could thrive at,’” she said. “It crashed through the barriers of my expectations.”

The opportunity to spend time with so many people who have a great love for Christ and who take their faith seriously was a major draw for World Youth Day participants.

“We hear that it’s one holy, Catholic, universal, apostolic Church, but you don’t really get that around here,” said Karson Bruce, high school senior and member of St. Francis of Assisi, Staunton. “I was ready to be totally immersed in what we hear every Sunday in real life, surrounded by so many good Catholics in one place, living in good faith.”

Panamanians welcomed World Youth Day pilgrims to the city, honking car horns and greeting the various groups carrying their home country’s flags with “Bienvendios!” 

“They were so excited for us to come into their country and share this with them,” Bruce said.

Margo Sheffler, a member of Church of the Epiphany, Chesterfield, and theology teacher at Blessed Sacrament-Huguenot, Powhatan, said, “As more people arrived, it felt like we had the whole world in one city.”

On Monday, Jan. 21, the diocese’s travel company brought together approximately 400 pilgrims representing 21 dioceses from the United States for a “Pray and Play” event. They took a motorboat ride on the canal and visited the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.

World Youth Day officially began with the opening Mass on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and FOCUS co-hosted the Fiat Festival on Wednesday, where English speakers came together for adoration with Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 

The energy picked up as more pilgrims arrived. It could be felt at all the WYD events, especially when Pope Francis arrived on Thursday afternoon. 

“Everyone is paying attention to where the pope is,” said Yankoski.

The Richmond delegation unexpectedly came across Pope Francis making his way through the crowds in his “popemobile” as they were walking to a church.

“There was a road blocked off, and someone said the pope was coming,” Scott recalled. “I didn’t record it or anything; I was just there in the moment. I was so in awe of being in the presence of the most holy man on earth. It was phenomenal!”

The Holy Father led Stations of the Cross on Friday night. Each station represented a social issue and was hosted by a different country of the Americas. Pilgrims received a prayer booklet with all the main prayers written in their native language. They also had the option to tune into radio stations with live translations.

Saturday into Sunday was an overnight event at Campo San Juan Pablo II. Pope Francis held Eucharistic adoration with a monstrance that resembled Mary with the host being displayed in her abdomen. Sheffler found it especially fitting since the theme for this year’s World Youth Day focused on Mary and her role as a servant of the Lord in giving birth to Jesus.

Pilgrims celebrated closing Mass on Sunday with Pope Francis. Before heading to the airport on Monday, the Richmond delegation gathered for reflection and prayer led by Steve Angrisano, a renowned speaker and singer-songwriter who has been featured at the Diocesan Youth Conference in Richmond.

The amount of prayer and the accessibility of the sacraments impressed Richmond’s youth. 

“The sacraments were at arm’s length in Panama every day, so I was totally immersed. It was amazing,” said Bruce.

“It was really neat to travel with that group from the diocese,” Sheffler said. “I felt like we really got to know each other and support each other. There’s nothing like World Youth Day.” 

“You could really tell that everyone was pushing everyone else to sainthood,” said Scott. “That’s what World Youth Day was about.”