Local pilgrims prepare for World Youth Day in Panama

Among the tens of thousands of young Catholics headed to Panama in January for the 15th international World Youth Day will be a group from the Omaha archdiocese.

Father Carl Zoucha, pastor of Assumption-Guadalupe Church in Omaha and leader of the group, said about 30 young people and chaperones will accompany him.

“It is an opportunity as the youth grow into young adulthood, that they have an experience of the universality of the church, the liveliness of the church, and that they have an experience of Christ present in the church and in the world so that they would stay Catholic,” he said.

A weeklong gathering of young people from across the world, World Youth Day is a celebration of faith and an opportunity for spiritual renewal for an entire generation of Catholics. This year’s event, scheduled for Jan. 22 to 27 in Panama City, will feature hundreds of small sessions of catechesis, praise and worship, rallies and daily Mass throughout the city.

In the evenings, young people will meet in the center of the city for larger events with Pope Francis, to be broadcast via JumboTron. One such event will be a communal holy hour. Pilgrims will camp together just outside the city and share in a night of prayer and adoration.

Before beginning their physical journey, young people in the local group are preparing for the work that God will do in their hearts and minds. Seminarian Kyle Loecker, a student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and a member of St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill, said the focus of his prayer has shifted as he anticipates the event.

“I pray for the desire to be willing to listen and then to respond,” he said. As a future priest, he said, it is important that he be present to his fellow pilgrims as a brother in Christ as well as a servant leader for them.

Alejandra Mayorga, a member of Assumption-Guadalupe parish, hopes to reignite her faith and grow in her ability to spread the Gospel by going on the pilgrimage.

“I feel like I am still a little lost within my faith,” she said. “But (going to Mass) brings me so much peace just to be there and see other people and the choir …. I just want to be able to encourage other people to do the same.”

She said young people can quickly fall away from their faith because as they age, it becomes less of an obligation and more of a conscious choice they must make daily. “Young people should not be afraid to be a part of their church community,” she said. “And they shouldn’t be afraid to ask God to help them find what his will is for them.” 

Loecker echoed her words, saying it is easy for secular society to pull Catholics away from their faith. “We have to know how we’re being affected, not just spiritually but psychologically and even physically by the world we live in. And we need to know how to respond in a way that is demonstrative of the Gospel and living the Gospel.”

Like Father Zoucha, Loecker and Mayorga see World Youth Day as an opportunity for young people to find their way back to God and strengthen their faith.

“In that humanity we get to experience something truly divine because we gather and just (being part of) that big of a movement and that many people, there’s something very ordained and graced,” said Loecker. “God is definitely present.”

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