ROME – Immigration, the environment and the role of women in the Catholic Church will be “central themes” at the 2019 World Youth Day, set to take place next month in Panama, which will be a primary testing ground for the principles laid out at the October summit of bishops on young people.
“The topic of migration will be central,” said Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa of Panama during a press conference in Rome organized by the ISCOM association, connected to the Pontifical University Holy Cross.
Beyond focusing on young people of course, the archbishop said World Youth Day will place a special emphasis on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and the doctrine of the Church.
The question of women in the Church will also be key, he added, because “one cannot conceive a church, surely the one in Latin America and especially the one in Central America, that is not kept together by women.”
A special symbol representing the role of women in the Church, the statue of Mary of Fatima, will be on display at the Jan. 22-27 event, leaving Portugal for the first time.
“For us the emphasis will be on the role of women,” Ulloa said, stating that the global gathering of Catholic youth will be a “great opportunity to bring forward all the good that women have done through history.”
Over 47,000 young people from 155 countries have already registered to attend the event organizers said, and 168,000 are completing the application process. This number is to be added to the 37,000 volunteers who have already signed up to help realize World Youth Day, coming from all over the world, including Colombia, Brazil, France, Costa Rica, Honduras and Poland.
“As a church, as a country, we are preparing to welcome the thousands of young people who will attend,” Ulloa said.
The archbishop voiced the hope that following the October summit of bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, the gathering of youth in Panama will present the opportunity for young people to “raise their voice” once again.
Given the current social and political climate in the Americas, it comes as no surprise that immigration will be a focal topic. “The sad reality of immigrants,” Ulloa said, “is at the center of the Church,” and has a particular resonance in Latin America.
“Young people being forced to emigrate, many suffering at the hands of drug traffickers,” are just some of the challenges that many young people face, Ulloa said.
“I am convinced that Pope Francis will be bringing the theme of hope,” he added. “Another topic that Pope Francis will address, which many young people especially in Central America need, is that of offering more opportunities.”
There will be a significant variety of young people at the event, organizers said, with 243 coming from China and 450 from Cuba. Muslims will also be in attendance, hailing from Jordan and Palestine.
Also, about 1,000 young people from indigenous populations are set to attend World Youth Day, an opportunity, Ulloa suggested, to begin addressing the topics that will unfold in the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region, at the forefront of the battle against climate change.
Nor will the political tensions that are unfolding in Latin American countries, especially Nicaragua and Venezuela, be forgotten. Francis will meet with the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) during his visit to Panama for the event as well as several representatives of South American states who have been invited.
Also, Ulloa said “they will always offer solidarity” to the neighboring countries facing “great trials and challenges.”
Finally, “the South American Church is a martyred Church,” the archbishop said, counting among them the now-Saint Oscar Romero and the many who died “to transform this region.”
“These are necessary models for young people, whom they can imitate and follow now, not tomorrow,” he added.
During his 23-28 trip to Panama, Francis will visit the newly restored Cathedral of Santa Maria La Antigua to consecrate its altar, meet with volunteers at the city’s main soccer stadium and walk the Via Crucis with young people.
One important stop will be to the juvenile detention center Las Garzas de Pacora, where Francis will celebrate the liturgy with young people. Ulloa said that among the concrete projects they intend to complete after the event is the creation of a center to care for youth saved from the streets.
“We promise great hospitality,” said Ana Maria Leon, the Panama ambassador to Italy, “we wish for every person coming to Panama to leave with a smile.”
“We are a small country,” she added, but strategically positioned to be “the heart of the world.”
The archbishop expressed the same feeling regarding World Youth Day, stating that “an event like this will forever be present for the universal Church and for the Central American Church.”