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BRAINTREE -- "What surprised me was the people and the energy that we were welcomed with when we arrived in Panama," Jovan Paul, a UMass Lowell freshman from St. John the Evangelist Church in Cambridge, said.
Speaking to the Pilot Jan. 28, as he and other pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Boston journeyed home, he described how drivers beeped their car horns to cheer when the World Youth Day pilgrims passed by in the street.
"It was a pleasant surprise to be so welcomed by the people of Panama," he said.
Paul was one of the 120 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Boston that arrived in Panama City on Jan. 20. World Youth Day officially opened with a Mass at Cinta Costera on Jan. 22.
Catechetical sessions were held with participating bishops Jan. 23-25. Sister Elsa Narvaez Rodriguez, the archdiocese's evangelization consultant for Hispanic communities, said the catechesis provided opportunities to share with the bishops and other groups of pilgrims.
"We were with a group from Venezuela. They shared their experiences and sufferings with us, and it opened our minds to see how blessed we are and how we can help others," Sister Elsa said.
Bethany Shemchuk from St. Francis Parish in Dracut said her favorite part of World Youth Day was the Fiat Festival, an event for English-speaking pilgrims that took place Jan. 23 at the Figali Convention Center. The Knights of Columbus, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsored the event, which included praise and worship, a talk from Bishop Robert Barron, and a Holy Hour and Eucharistic procession, led by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.
"It was really a great experience to see a lot of my generation, people my age, younger, some older, come together and be dancing up and down and then having moments of silence for prayer and really coming together as a Church family," Shemchuk said.
The Boston pilgrims spent Jan. 25 exploring the city before ending the day by participating the Way of the Cross with Pope Francis, who had arrived in Panama Jan. 24.
On Jan. 26 Cardinal O'Malley celebrated Mass for all 120 Boston pilgrims at the Church of Our Lady of Carmen in Panama City. Afterward, the pilgrims went to St. John Paul II Field at Metropolitan Park to camp out for the prayer vigil, which included music, adoration, praying the rosary, an address from Pope Francis, and a procession with a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
Chris Donoghue of the office of Faith Formation and Missionary Discipleship and one of the group's leaders, described an experience he and some of the Boston pilgrims had during the vigil. Thinking that there might be time when they had nothing to do, they bought a ball at a supermarket and began tossing it to each other at the vigil. Pilgrims from other countries asked to join the game, which lasted about half an hour as pilgrims from various countries stopped to play and dance before going on their way.
"Our circle expanded from the four of us to about 12 people, and we were dancing and throwing the ball back and forth, and we got to meet people from all different countries of the world, and we all had a great time," Donoghue said.
They spent the night outdoors in sleeping bags, and awoke the morning of Jan. 27 to the sound of music over a loudspeaker. Pope Francis held the closing Mass and announced that the next World Youth Day will be held in Lisbon, Portugal.
The Boston pilgrims returned to their hotel and later had a farewell dinner with Cardinal O'Malley at the Miraflores Visitors Center. From an observation deck, they were able to watch ships crossing through the Panama Canal.
Some of the pilgrims shared their favorite parts of the experience with the Pilot through video messages or phone interviews.
"My favorite part of World Youth Day was seeing so many religious people and hearing about their vocation stories, the different orders, their charisms. It really inspired me to undertake my own journey of discernment," Boston University student Cordelia Theseira said in a video sent to the Pilot.
Jovan Paul said he "learned a lot more about what my faith means to me and what it means to other people, and how I could influence my community more, and I'm really looking forward to going back home and explaining to my parish and my youth group what I learned from this trip."
Erica Climaco, from Immaculate Conception Parish in Revere, said she would encourage others to go to World Youth Day, not only because it is a good experience for the pilgrims themselves but also because they can share what they learned when they return to their home parishes.
"You can bring the joy that you experienced to them through your testimony," she said.