The world’s young Catholics converge on Panama
The country is affected by problems common to Latin America in general — extremely fragile family structures, gang violence, drug trafficking
The World Youth Day celebration opens in Panama on Tuesday, one day before Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive there and just months after the bishops’ synod special assembly on young people. Wealthier and more politically stable than its Central American neighbors, Panama has, however, one of the strongest levels of inequality in the world.
PANAMA — On the fourth floor of the high-rise overlooking the Miraflores Locks, on the Panama Canal, pilgrims who have come for World Youth Day 2019 mix with the crowd of tourists.
Ahead of this mega-assembly of the world’s young Catholics, Argentineans and Chileans wish to enjoy the impressive spectacle of a steamship crossing the flights of locks at the mouth of one of the world’s most famous canals.
Some 5 percent of global maritime traffic transits through the waterway, which cuts through the 80-kilometer strip of land separating the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The canal and the U.S. presence up to 1999 enabled this small country to enjoy a certain measure of prosperity, along with the money that flowed through its banks by the millions thanks to banking secrecy and tax-free treatment for foreign money.
Far from the Panama Papers scandal, pilgrims discover the swanky skyscrapers that adorn the Bay of Panama.
Palm fronds wave gently against the setting sun in the warm breeze and the sounds of salsa waft out of the neighboring bars, where people move around freely with no fear for their safety. Around the Casco Viejo, the tiny historic center of the city, foreigners and locals enjoy the elegant restaurants.
‘Bridge of the world, heart of the universe’
By deciding to make Panama the stage of the 34th World Youth Day, the pope chose to have the youth of the world converge on the center of the Americas, this country that prides itself, in local parlance, on being “the bridge of the world, the heart of the universe.”
With barely 4 million inhabitants and an area of 75,417 square kilometers — one-eighth the size of France and smaller than the state of South Carolina — Panama took up the challenge to organize an event many doubted it would be able to manage.
“If Panama has done it, anyone can do it,” someone joked in the corridors of the local organizing committee a few days before the official opening. Between 250,000 and 350,000 young people are expected to attend, many of them Latin Americans.
A region battered by poverty and violence
“In Central America, the country most likely to be able to welcome [the pope] for the [World Youth Day] was Panama, because the Church here is traditionally well organized and the country is more developed than most of its neighbors,” explains Salesian Fr. Carlos Vilanova, priest of Don Bosco Parish in the working-class neighborhood of Calidonia, which will host hundreds of youths this week.
In a region battered by poverty and violence, Panama’s wealth stands out. It seems far removed from the instability and misery that reign in Nicaragua and El Salvador, as well as Honduras and Guatemala.
Behind the gloss, however, the economic growth has its dark side. Like other regional countries, corruption is a major scourge. Former president Ricardo Martinelli has, in fact, been in prison for months now after being extradited from the United States.
Among the most unequal states in the world
More globally, Panama is affected by problems common to Latin America in general and Central America in particular, such as extremely fragile family structures, and the presence of gangs active in robbery and drug trafficking.
Moreover, Panama is one of the most inegalitarian states in the region and the world. The grand losers in the enviable growth it has achieved are the young people, in a country where people under the age of 30 represent a third of the active population.
According to a list published by the BBC based on information from World Bank experts, the country ranks sixth in terms of unequal wealth distribution.
According to the same source, almost 100,000 young Panamanians join the job market annually. While 36,000 jobs are available each year, no matter their level of education, only 16 percent of these posts are available to young people.
“We do not have problems as severe as those of young people in Venezuela or Nicaragua, many of whom settle here in search of a better life,” says Sonia, 23, who works in a ministry, lives in Don Bosco Parish, and is preparing to host pilgrims from Chile. “But we do not all have the same prospects for having a good situation.”
Home to the continent’s very first diocese
The Church is only too conscious of this situation. Resolutely present in all sectors of society, it also has a long tradition of commitment to its poorest people.
It was in fact in Panama that the very first diocese on the American continent was established, in the 16th century, shortly after the Spanish conquest. The Panamanian church subsequently developed thanks to the work of missionaries, a situation that has greatly evolved in the last few decades.
“When I arrived in Panama, two-thirds of the priests were foreign,” says Fr. Miguel Angel Keller, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Theology of the Santa Maria de la Antigua Catholic University. “Today, the proportion has been inverted.”
Even if the country is stable today, the Church has lived through political upheavals, revolutions, civil wars, and dictatorships, “in unison with the whole of Central America” stresses the Augustine priest of Spanish origin, who has been in the country for about 40 years.
‘Church of the poor and Church of martyrs’
The church of Panama has also been called “church of the poor and church of martyrs.” In 1970, during the dictatorship of Omar Torrijos, a priest was murdered: Hector Gallego, a Colombian missionary in the province of Veraguas, where he denounced the exploitation of the peasants.
While the Panamanian church has not played as important a role as in other Central American countries, it makes its voice heard on all social issues: inequality, environment, education.
“Recently the Augustinians took up the defense of the indigenous people of the province of Chitré, in the west of Panama, opposing the construction of a big hydro-electric complex and being repressed by the police during violent demonstrations,” Fr. Keller said.
The Catholic Church heads the list of institutions with the strongest credibility, despite an increase in evangelical churches. This, says the priest, is “because of the religious nature of Latin Americans, of course, but also because [the Church] demonstrated its mettle.”
Panama’s church is a “church of the periphery of the world” that still cannot get over the fact that, this week, it has moved to the center of global Catholicism by hosting the youth of five continents.
— Marie Malzac
TO LEARN MORE:
World Youth Day: WorldYouthDay.com/Panama-2019
From La Croix International: “Joyous pilgrims await pope as Panama hosts World Youth Day”
From Catholic News Agency: 5 things to know about World Youth Day 2019