From left, Liv Martin (USA), Justo Lopez (Mexico), and Jose Guillermo (Panama) waiting for Pope Francis at the WYD Volunteers' Meeting.

Volunteering at World Youth Day Panama: A Privilege to Beg

"Volunteering, choosing to submit my freedom for the design and service of another, fundamentally, educates me to the nature of my original position — that of a beggar."

“The culture of encounter is a call inviting us to dare to keep alive a shared dream . . . A dream named Jesus, sown by the Father in the confidence that it would grow and live in every heart. A dream running through our veins, thrilling our hearts and making them dance whenever we hear the command: ‘that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love another’ . . . Mary found the courage to say ‘yes’. She found the strength to give life to God’s dream.” — Pope Francis, Welcome ceremony and opening of WYD at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, Cinta Costera, Panama City, Panama. 24 January 2019.

On January 22-25, 2019, over 200,000 youth from 88 countries gathered with Pope Francis in Panama to celebrate World Youth Day (WYD). Instituted in 1985 by St. John Paul II, WYD was founded with three intentions: celebrating and entrusting the youth with responsibility, understanding life as pilgrimage and encountering the Catholic community.

I attended my first WYD in Madrid in 2011. I was 16 and my mom and I travelled with a group from Wichita, KS. In many ways, that experience has proved central to my life’s trajectory. In being a WYD pilgrim I gained a best friend and college roommate, an interest in Spanish culture and language, which has influenced my course of study, career and friendships, and I gained a keener awareness of the absolute universality yet particularity of the Church. So, a year ago when my editor asked if I’d like to go to WYD in Panama, I instantly said “yes!” I had a huge desire to live it intensely — I wanted to live it as a volunteer.

When my editor then asked me why, I couldn’t help but think of my experience volunteering at New York Encounter (NYE). And I can’t seem to write about it without overusing the word “always”. For me, living NYE as a volunteer has always been more beautiful than just attending. It always asks me to pay attention to and be interested in others — and I’m always mysteriously given the grace to do so. I’ve volunteered at NYE planning on giving and bringing so much, but I always ends up receiving a great love and self-knowledge my service did nothing to generate or deserve. Volunteering, choosing to submit my freedom for the design and service of another, fundamentally, educates me to the nature of my original position — that of a beggar. I hoped to find this experience to be true as a WYD volunteer as well. I wanted to say thank you and, most of all, to become more myself.

In “The Meaning of Charitable Work” don Giussani claims: “In order to understand it is not enough to know, it is necessary to do, with the courage of freedom, which is the adherence to that being which is seen, that is, to truth.” I found this to directly correspond to my experience at WYD because it wasn’t until I was actually in Panama doing the work that my volunteering was able to move from knowledge to experience.

The majority of the work was not glamourous. We press volunteers spent many days inside working 12-hour shifts. Sleep was minimal. There was no air conditioning in my room. Tasks were not always organized. Regardless, something happened in following those unideal but given circumstances. In them, I met some of the happiest people I know. A few of them were young men imprisoned for homicide who were overjoyed at the prospect of confessing their sins to the pope and receiving God’s forgiveness. Others were members of Central American press. Even our waiters and Uber drivers were filled with anticipation for all that would happen during WYD. Everything we volunteers lived was lived together, from meals to frustrations to free time. Volunteering gave me a place and people to belong to. We were a community in the truest sense because we were united in knowledge and awareness of Who was making our lives possible. We were so filled with wonder that every day at least one person would ask, “Can you believe we, who are from so many different countries, have met?” or exclaim, “I can’t believe we from all over the world are here in Panama for the same thing: Christ!” It was just as Pope Francis said in his opening address at WYD:

“We can ask: What keeps us united? Why are we united? What prompts us to encounter each other? The certainty of knowing that we have been loved with a profound love that we neither can nor want to keep quiet about, a love that challenges us to respond in the same way: with love. It is the love of Christ that urges us on.”

Now, writing from Kansas, I’m still asking myself what actually happened at WYD. I have boiled it down to three things I know to be true: I learned to fall in love again in every sense; the gratuitousness of Christ I met in the people in Panama has given me a new affection for the circumstances I am given; and I find myself asking with new energy for the grace to live the truth of Who I met in Panama, Christ who is still present!

The theme of WYD 2019 was Mary’s fiat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to Your Word.” While this message certainly is for all, it especially was for us volunteers.

Olivia, Kansas, USA