NEW YORK — Pilgrims from the New York Archdiocese who attended the world-class retreat led by Pope Francis that was World Youth Day in Panama felt renewed in their faith journey and are still cherishing the moment as a joyful turning point they will always remember.

“These are some really special young people. I know they won’t leave what they encountered and learned behind in Panama, but will bring it with them to the Archdiocese of New York,” said Mary Elise Zellmer, assistant director of the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Outreach.

She made the comments in an email to Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, after World Youth Day ended.

Among the 44 young adult pilgrims and nine coordinators from the archdiocese who were in Panama for the Jan 22-27 gathering was Josue Rosario Cruz, 24, who took part in the Way of the Cross led by Francis the evening of Jan. 25 at Santa Maria La Antigua Field in Panama City.

“Honestly, it was amazing. I can now hear the voice of God a lot clearer than I could before,” Cruz told a Catholic New York reporter in Panama. “After seeing the Holy Father there, after the Via Crucis, it felt as if that’s what happened. … The greatest part about it was (the) U.S.A. had the privilege, just like Panama, to stand the closest to the pope up the stairs of the stage, about 10 feet away — for a good five to 10 seconds, we were, like, right there with the pope!”

Zellmer said that ahead of World Youth Day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had reached out to her and asked her to recommend a person for the Way of the Cross. “I just think that he (Cruz) is so vibrant and full of life — and I thought that he would do great job representing us; he’s a true New Yorker and he just seemed to have it all.”

Cruz is a parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua in the New York borough of the Bronx, where Father Joseph Espaillat is pastor. He was part of the delegation with his mother, Mercedes Espaillat.

World Youth Day “means a lot for their spiritual growth,” the priest said of the young people attending. “It is very powerful and meaningful. I believe there are a lot of fruits that will be coming from this — not only in vocations, but also just young people committed to Christ and to the Church,” he said in an interview in Panama.

He added, “This can help young people discover their vocation — and to strengthen their faith. They can help to build a new church — a stronger church.”

Cynthia Psencik, director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry, wrote that being part of the week “helped me to witness the beauty of God’s church.”

Members of a delegation that went to Panama from the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, likewise pointed to a renewal of their faith from the experience as well as an openness to answer the Lord’s call.

The pilgrimage was marked by moments of “joy, excitement and peace,” Anna Metzger, a Spanish teacher at Mercy Academy, told The Record, Louisville’s archdiocesan newspaper.

“Before World Youth Day, I had experienced my faith in the states and I learned the Spanish language in Central America, but I had never lived them out together before. World Youth Day in Panama allowed me to put my faith in action in a culture that fills my heart,” said Metzger, 24.

She recalled the Holy Hour with Francis and described it as “beautiful and divine.”

“It was beautiful to experience the church from around the world come together in union with the pope and divine to spend time in prayer with the Father,” she said, adding that Francis sets the church “on fire” in a way no one else can.

“He evokes passion and motivation in all to spread not only the word of the Gospel, but also carry out the actions called upon us by the Gospel,” she said.

Leo Luna, 24, described his pilgrimage to Panama as intense and said the days he spent in Panama were “transformational in my faith.”

Luna, who attends St. Rita Church in Louisville, said he left the Church in his early 20s, even feeling hatred for it. Seeking answers, he said, he attended World Youth Day and experienced something profound.

“The big message I took away is that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, from which I have denied for years,” he said. “Because of my World Youth Day experience, I now consider myself Catholic. It gave me the assurance and answer I was desperately seeking,” said Luna, whose brother Fermin is a seminarian studying to be a priest for the Louisville Archdiocese.

It was the second World Youth Day experience for Caryn Crush, 30. Her first was Poland in 2016. Crush, a parishioner of Guardian Angels Church, noted the theme of the 2019 youth gathering: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This is referred to as Mary’s “fiat,” Latin for “let it be.”

“We need to trust like Mary did. We need to give our ‘fiat’ like Mary did. It does not matter the size of the task that God is asking us,” she told The Record.

Crush, who is a teacher at Sacred Heart Preschool, said she “gained a renewed spirit” through the experience.

“I have never felt so ready for Lent in my life. … I am ready to give my ‘fiat’ in all the little ways and the big ways,” she added. “I have gained a deeper sense of healing and renewed spirit ready for the next chapter of life,” she said.

At the closing Mass for World Youth Day, Francis told the young pilgrims they “are not the future but the now of God.”

“He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents and elders — to stand up with them, to speak out and realize the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you,” he said. “Your faith and joy have made Panama, America and the entire world shake. … We are on a journey — keep walking, keep living the faith and sharing it.”

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Machado, who was born in Panama, writes for Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Contributing to this story was Jessica Able, staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.