A look at what it's like on the ground, at this first Central American WYD
“I do not know if I will be in Panama, but I can assure you of one thing: Peter will be in Panama.” With these words, Pope Francis closed the last World Youth Day in Krakow in July 2016. Two and a half years later, he’s kept his word. “Peter” is in Panama, and “Peter” is still the first Latin American pope in history.
Having arrived in Panama on January 23, the Sovereign Pontiff had to comply with some formal obligations before being able to speak to the youth of the world gathered in this small Central American country. Thus, it was only at the end of the next day, January 24, that the Supreme Pontiff met with the pilgrims, after having first met with the president and having given speeches before the authorities of the country and before the bishops of the region.
Regardless, the young people were very happy to be able to welcome “Peter” — most especially, the young Central Americans, who finally have “their” WYD. Until now, none of the countries of this region has been chosen to host this global gathering. That being the case, Central Americans are celebrating. Although 110,000 people are officially taking part in the WYD, no fewer than 250,000 were present for the opening ceremony of the WYD, which was the first meeting with the pope. This is evidence that Panamanians were present en masse.
In spite of the scorching heat – it’s over 100ºF in the afternoon – the faithful have shown themselves ready to wait a long time for the Successor of Peter. Many of them wore t-shirts with quotations from the current Sovereign Pontiff. “Do not let your hope be stolen!” said the shirt worn by one young man, echoing one of the Argentine pope’s catchphrases in his speeches to young people.
As the arrival time of the pope approached, the crowd was dense along the passage of the papamobile.
The giant screens transmitted images of a car moving at a brisk pace on a road closed to traffic. Its license plate identified its occupant: SCV1, reserved for the head of the Vatican. Soon, the car stopped alongside a very special vehicle, instantly recognizable among all the rest: the popemobile. The pope got in, and the crowd rushed toward the barriers.
A wave of sound preceded the white vehicle, a clamor of joy that greets the Sovereign Pontiff. “Ésta es la juventud del papa! These are the pope’s young people!” Smiling and relaxed, Pope Francis greets to the right, then to the left. Some run along the barriers to follow the papamobile. Then it’s over: the Supreme Pontiff has passed by. Some wipe the tears of joy flowing down their cheeks, while others look at the photos or video they were able to record on their phone. Soon, these images will make the rounds to their families on social networks.
An inattentive observer might see there an idolatry of the person of the pope, which, in the end, wouldn’t be very compatible with the function of Vicar of Christ. But it is not so. The proof? The long, unanimous shout of joy when Pope Francis asked for applause for his predecessor Benedict XVI. If it were a cult for this Latin American pope, why would the Central Americans have shown such fervor for this elderly German whom they have never seen? Quite simply, because it is not idolatry, but filial devotion: these believers have understood that the Holy Father may be called holy, but he is above all a father. So, it is not Francis who is acclaimed, but “Peter,” the disciple of Christ who comes to confirm his brothers in the faith.