By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service
PANAMA CITY – Just before leaving the physical and human warmth of Panama January 27, Pope Francis stopped to thank the thousands of official volunteers, young and old, gathered at the capital city’s Rommel Fernandez Stadium to tell them that they had just participated in an event similar to one that took place early in Christianity.
In their case, they didn’t just multiply food, he said.
“You could have easily chosen to do other things, but you wanted to be involved, to give your best to making possible the miracle of the multiplication, not only of loaves, but also hope,” he said, telling the volunteers to go out into the world and make that attitude contagious. “We need to multiply that hope.”
Volunteers at Panama’s World Youth Day showed it was possible to renounce one’s interests in favor of others, the pope said.
“You made a commitment,” he said. “Thank you.”
On stage, before the pope spoke, Bartosz Placak of Poland offered his testimony in Spanish to those gathered at the stadium and said that while volunteering for World Youth Day in Panama, he had experienced a taste of what living in the early Christian communities must have been like: sharing food, homes, anything other people needed.
“In sharing, you create a small community and we return to the times of the first Christians … we follow their example,” he said.
Panamanian volunteer Stella Maris del Carmen told the story of how she had planned to attend the previous World Youth Day, an event she’d longed to attend since she was a child. She had saved enough money to go to Poland in 2016 and then her grandparents died. She canceled her plans and used the money she had saved to tend to her family.
The pope said he was touched by her story. By renouncing the trip for the family, “you honored your roots,” the pope told her. “That’s what makes you a woman, an adult.” But then consider what happened because of that sacrifice, he said.
“The Lord had the gift of (World Youth Day) waiting for you in your homeland,” he said. “The Lord likes to play those tricks. That’s how God is.”
What a person gives to others “the Lord returns” many times over, he said. And the world needs more such examples of surrender and love to provide a “balm in the lives of others,” he said.
Panamanians certainly had heeded that counsel long before the event.
World Youth Day 2019 in Panama may not have been the largest, in terms of attendance. Event officials say some 113,000 registered as pilgrims to attend various events – though it was obvious that many more who did not register filled up the venues.
What the event in Panama may – or may not – have lacked in numbers, it made up for in its treatment of young pilgrims. Priests, bishops, women religious and thousands of volunteers, young and old, officially and unofficially, seemed to devote more quality time to participants than in the past, said pilgrims such as Francisco Apenu Cofie of Ghana.
“It was more intimate,” said Cofie, who attended World Youth Day in Poland and Brazil. Panama had a special touch, he said.
Those like Polish volunteer Placak said it was not always easy to help and admitted moments of weakness, but he said he learned powerful lessons along the way.
“I have received more than what I expected, and this is the mystery of the divine gifts. I am happy,” he said.