PANAMA CITY, Panama — As the planet’s movers and shakers travel this week to Davos, Switzerland, one young married couple now living there has left the Alpine country to attend another global gathering in support of a world leader who matters even more to them: Pope Francis.
Brazilian-born Leticia Vera and Luca Schafer of Switzerland arrived in Panama over a week ago to volunteer on the social media team for World Youth Day, the weeklong Vatican-backed youth festival that takes place every two to three years.
While a chance to be in the presence of the pope is often the highlight for most young people who attend World Youth Days, for Leticia and Luca, that’s not exactly a top priority.
In fact, they’re more content serving behind the scenes — a sign of humility, to be sure, but it’s also because they’ve already had their moment in the spotlight with Francis when he surprised their friends and family by showing up to officiate at their wedding.
Luca is a former Swiss Guard, and Leticia was previously an employee of the Vatican Museums. When they sent a request to Francis to celebrate their wedding at St. Stephen of the Abyssinians Church inside Vatican City, they didn’t imagine he’d actually say yes.
Although having the pope celebrate their wedding was a dream, they told Crux it hasn’t meant that life is “happily ever after” — in fact, just two weeks after the wedding they faced the unexpected death of Leticia’s father, and more recently, the miscarriage of their first child.
Part of why they’re in Panama, they said, is to “embrace this cross, and with our own pain, to embrace the pain of other young people and go forward together in Christ.”
Over the past six months, they’ve thought a lot about the pope’s words to them during his wedding homily: “To leave, to stop, and to resume the journey.”
First, he encouraged them to leave their parents’ house to form a family of their own. Secondly, to stop in difficult moments and to recall the “first wine” — or their first love — and finally, in doing so, to gather the spiritual strength to move forward.
As they’ve dealt with sickness and death, they’ve returned to those words a lot, telling Crux it’s reminded them that “life is not perfect. True life is very different, but there’s beauty in the suffering.”
Coming from Switzerland, where they believe economic security has led too many of their fellow countrymen to abandon faith, they recognize that events such as World Youth Day are countercultural affairs.
“There’s a culture that wants to make young people sad for who they want to be and what they dream, but World Youth Day is a message that there is a better way and a much better way to live,” said Leticia.
At this point, Leticia is a World Youth Day veteran, having volunteered in her native homeland when the pope traveled to Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and again in Krakow, Poland, in 2016.
Panama, however, marks Luca’s first World Youth Day, and although he was initially wary of the crowds, he said he’s already grateful to be present.
“There are so many young people praying together and you get to share with them. It gives you a big strength,” he said. “And, it reminds you that we’re not alone.”
Back home in Switzerland, Luca is studying to become a doctor and Leticia has just finished a book about their own journey in discovering their vocation.
They reflect on the fact that nestled in the Swiss Alps, global elites are scheming up new ways to address world crises while on the shores of Panama City, a less glamorous world gathering is shaping up — just without as much attention.
“I hope the people in Davos listen to what the pope is saying and also what the young people are saying to the pope, because here there is a really important dialogue,” Leticia told Crux.
“Here we can prove to them that we can live together and be united and that peace isn’t just a utopian idea — and that young people are the ones putting it into practice,” she continued.
As the city fills up with an estimated 150,000 young people this week — with hundreds of thousands more expected by the weekend — Luca and Leticia say their main priority is to help where they can in service of the many first time visitors who are here to listen to what the pope has to say.
They doubt that they’ll have a chance to interact with him personally, but when the pope is in all your wedding pictures, it’s hard to complain.
“But,” said Leticia, “the pope is always full of surprises.”