The 2019 World Youth Day in Panama featured young catholics from dozens of countries, hundreds of dioceses, and one very happy youth group from the Diocese of Gallup.

For the teens from Sacred Heart Parish in Farmington, NM, the trip to Panama was the culmination of months of hard work and dedication.

“Our kids did a lot of fundraisers and really worked very very hard to make the trip possible. And I think in doing that, the ones who stayed with it got this amazing spiritual experience because it meant everything to them because they worked so hard for it,” said Fr. Tim Farrell, pastor of Sacred Heat Parish. “They didn’t just get mom or dad to write a check – we didn’t allow that. They had to be at the fundraisers, they had to be at youth ministry, and so they really became a group because they worked hard together.”

Kristi Lucero is the Parish Youth Director. She was in Poland for World Youth Day 2016 and when the announcement came that the next gathering would be in Panama, she made up her mind to go.

“I was the DRE in St. Marys in Bloomfield prior to moving to Sacred Heart, and we had taken a group to Krakow. We had such a good time, and I can remember when they made the announcement in Krakow that the next one would be in Panama. It was something that we were excited about then. So having Fr. Tim on board to support…he asked if it was something we wanted to do and I said ‘absolutely’. We just jumped at the opportunity to go.”

Photo courtesy of Kristi Lucero.

Farrell accompanied the youth group and chaperones on the trip as the group’s chaplain, celebrating Mass each day at local churches. Before reaching Panama, the group spent a few days in Mexico, sightseeing at Aztec pyramids and visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

When they reached Panama, the trip took became a kind of pilgrimage, in every sense of the word. Fr. Farrell recalls walking long distances every day – often up to ten miles.

“So our kids really had to be in shape and I don’t know how I got it done, but I got it done as well,” he said. “I never heard them complain – they were amazing. Teenagers are very strong. they’re not the complainers – many times we older folks are the ones who whine and complain, you know. But I find teenagers very able to adapt. And they seemed to love what they saw.”

One particular day, Fr. Farrell remembers, they happened to step off a train into a street just as Pope Francis was passing by. And on that day, Chanell Hensley, a high school member of the youth group, was celebrating her birthday.

“We came out of the metro and he was right there,” Hensley recalls. “After he passed by I turned to one of the chaperones and got emotional and said ‘he was right there’ and started crying.”

But more than the sightseeing, it was the human connections the group formed that made the trip memorable.

“I think it’s important, especially when you have teens from a small town who don’t always have the opportunity to travel, to be able to see a million other catholic young people that were excited to be Catholic and share their faith and come together,” said Lucero. “Because some of these teens worked really hard to get here and have this opportunity.”

Photo courtesy of Kristi Lucero.

Fr. Farrell observed quick friendships that formed between his youth group and other young people. As the group’s chaplain, the connections fit right into his spiritual goals for the trip.

“What I wanted them to get was a sense of the universal church, especially at world youth day, to see all these young people gathered together, hundreds of thousands of them, to pray together and to worship together,” he said. “They exchanged buttons, little flags. They wear their country’s flag and they get to talk to each other – they made a lot of new friends. They got email addresses or facebook addresses, and so they’re keeping in touch with these young men and women from around the world, that came from all over.”

He also recalls one particular day, away from the bustle of tourists, when his group had taken a day for themselves to explore a new part of Panama City.

“We ended up in a church and we wanted to have Mass each day. I didn’t have my alb and stole and host and wine. And we were in this beautiful old church, and I and the guide went up to the pastor who happened to just be there and asked him if we might have Mass at his church. And he said “absolutely” – they were the friendliest people. And we had this beautiful Mass – for whatever reason everybody was deeply touched by that place, that beautiful old old church. I think it dates back into the 1700s even. At the same time we celebrated the Eucharist there, many of the parishioners from the church were there. They couldn’t speak a word of English, most of us couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, and yet we were the universal church and we celebrated the holy eucharist together and that was a very powerful thing for all of us.”

From the first day of fundraising to attending Mass celebrated by the Pope in Panama, Fr. Farrell viewed the entire process as a moving spiritual experience, for the adults and youth alike.

“That’s truly how the Church manifests Christ, that we come together – 2 or 3 people gather together – and you decide “this is really important” and that’s when miracles happen. And I really saw that in this, with Kristi’s hard work, the kids’ hard work, and  it meant so much more to them.”

Hensley agrees – despite missing sports practice and school in order to go to Panama, she describes World Youth Day as a “once in a lifetime” experience.

“Cherish every moment! Because before you know it, the trip will be over and you’ll be back home.”

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