ROME - Pope Francis will make his first trip to Panama on Wednesday for the World Youth Day festival that is expected to be attended by more than 150,000 young people. For more than two years the Central American country has been getting ready to welcome the pontiff and young people from all over the world.
During his four full days in Panama, Francis has a full schedule. The main purpose of his visit is to take part in World Youth Day 2019 during which he will also meet with young people who cannot attend the festivities. They are young people at a detention center and young AIDS patients.
Vatican officials said the focus of the pope’s 26th foreign trip will be regional problems, migration, the fight against corruption and violence, and the role of women. In Panama, there are high hopes and much excitement on the part of young people and thousands of officials and volunteers involved in the preparations.
Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela addressed the nation ahead of the papal visit.
He said that “In the coming days we will be witnesses of one of the most important global events that will be celebrated in our beautiful country, World Youth Day and the visit of Pope Francis.” He added that it will be a week during which thousands of pilgrims will visit from the five continents and more than 150 countries. He said it will be “an opportunity to show the world the beauty of our land, the joy and nobility of the heart of our people”.
Panama has a population of about four million people, of whom 88 percent are Catholic.
During his visit, Francis is expected to deliver seven speeches and celebrate two masses. The two main World Youth Day events will be a Way of the Cross held at the Cinta Costera and a mass held at the Metro Park in Panama City.
In a first for a World Youth Day, Pope Francis is scheduled to take a 30-minute helicopter ride on Friday to a youth detention center for 200 inmates in Pacora to hear confessions of several of its inmates, including one convicted of committing a double homicide at just 16 years old.
Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa of Panama said Pope Francis' meeting with young detainees will be “a very special event” in which “young people deprived of freedom will take part in a penitential liturgy with the Holy Father”.
After the closing mass for World Youth Day, on Saturday, the pope will be visiting the Good Samaritan Home, a center dedicated to helping HIV and AIDS patients “regardless of their sex, religion, sexual orientation, geographical origin” and “who lack the resources to live and cope with their illness.”
Pope Francis will also be dedicating the altar of Panama's newly renovated 400-year-old cathedral, hold a meeting with bishops from Central America and have lunch with some of the young people attending the World Youth Day gathering.
The pope will be back at the Vatican on Monday morning. He has a number of other foreign trips already scheduled in 2019, including one to the United Arab Emirates in February and another to Morocco in March.