Hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world joined Pope Francis in Panama to celebrate the fifteenth World Youth Day from 22-27 January 2019. Gen Verde were privileged to perform on several stages in the city, as part of the Official WYD programme. Paul Gateshill caught up with Sally McAllister.

[New City Magazine – March 2019]

What is the World Youth Day? When did it start and why?

It began in the mid-eighties when Pope John Paul II invited young people to come to Rome on pilgrimage and instead of the 60,000 expected, around 250,000 turned up. Then he repeated the invitation the next year to coincide with the UN Year of Youth and the numbers grew to over 300,000 and it has gone on from there. But in my opinion I think it would be a mistake to imagine it just ‘happened’, without thought or particular insight. There are always the external circumstances and then there is a much deeper narrative. Pope John Paul had a particular gift for relating to young people and he recognised that they enjoy coming together in big numbers to celebrate. He built on that to create something which has grown into an extraordinary, grace-filled opportunity for young people to come together from all over the world to celebrate and to renew their faith and commitment.

Apparently fewer young people came to Panama than to other World Youth Days. Do you think this is a sign that enthusiasm for large youth manifestations is on the decline?

Quite the contrary! I know that some commentators have drawn attention to the fact that the 700,000 attending the Final Mass were much less than the millions who went to Krakow, Manila or Brazil but I think it is always a mis­take to measure the success of events – and in particular events like the World Youth Day – on numbers alone. When Pope Francis chose Panama as the venue for the 2019 World Youth Day he facilitated the participation of thousands of young people who would never otherwise have had the possibility to take part in an event of this kind, if it meant visiting Europe or another continent.

How did Gen Verde get involved? What did you do?

The World Youth Day was structured in three parts: the pre-Festival events; the Festival itself and the post-WYD events. Gen Verde worked in all three parts with work­shop programmes and in performances in large open air venues as part of the WYD festival.

In the pre-WYD programme, we worked with the young people from the Dioceses of Chitré and Colón with the ‘Start Now’ programme and held two big open air concerts to welcome pilgrims arriving from all over the world to their cities.

In one of the projects our experience was particularly strong. We were in a city which in the past had been very wealthy but has since been allowed to totally disintegrate. It was shocking to realise that behind the derelict façade of the buildings were families living in houses in a state of total disrepair, many without windows or roofing. Given that this part of town is now very dangerous, there was a heavy police presence, and we were escorted back to our hotel after dinner. They considered it too dangerous for us to travel alone, even though it was only a five minute walk. We worked with a very small group of young people there – and it was heart-breaking to hear their stories. Many of them had a very poor sense of self-worth but to see them get up on stage and perform in the concert, in an outdoor venue for thousands of people, was very moving.

Any particular personal highlights?

One of our first commitments in Panama City during the WYD festival week was in a prison which houses over 600 women. Pope Francis described Panama 2019 as the ‘WYD of the marginalized’, making this one of the most important appointments for us, during our tour in Panama.

The level of security surrounding our visit: document checks, body searches and the restrictions about what we could do, what we could wear and bring in, brought the reality of prison life home to us all quite forcefully.

There was something so poignant about the fact that whilst the majority of the women we met were young and dressed in their WYD t-shirts and baseball caps, they looked no different from the hundreds of thousands thronging the streets of Panama City and yet we were aware that this was their only opportunity to participate in the official events of the WYD.

The Deputy Mayor of Panama City, Raisa Banfield, who was present that morning, described it as ‘a mo­ment of God’. She said: ‘It was a moment in which we met as women, as human beings… And, although they have lost their freedom, through this meeting they found the freedom of love; that love which is universal, which makes us one, which goes beyond barriers and the limits in which they live. It was moving to see their faces, to see how they received the message of the songs, maybe in a deeper and more immediate way than those who are free and don’t even realise it. So, for me, this was a moment to reflect; a moment of conversion.’

After the concert we had time to talk and listen to the women, and heard some particularly harrowing stories. So while they expressed their gratitude to us for bringing the WYD to them, we felt instead it was our privilege – that we were called to be a sign of hope – that with our lives we are called to witness to the fact that no matter what happens, we can always start again.

When we came out of the prison, Adriana Garcia from Gen Verde said: ‘Personally for me – but I think I speak for everyone in Gen Verde – this experience was very strong and very deep. It meant re-finding hope and the mercy of God which works in our lives no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. We were able to share our lives with the people who live there, in prison, and it was truly beautiful. This WYD would not have been the same without this moment because we are all pilgrims. It doesn’t matter where we are, we are all on a journey towards heaven and this experience in the prison was an honour for each one of us. To be able to share the suffering of these sisters of ours and to be able to say “let’s go ahead together, it doesn’t all finish here.” We have hope – the world can change – we really believe that.’

So, there were some very special moments – includ­ing performing in front of 600,000 at the Vigil event with the Pope but if I had to choose one, I would say that it was the performance that morning in the prison.

What was the message of Pope Francis? How did his intervention go down with the youth?

As ever, Pope Francis was utterly disarming in his simplicity but also very clear and direct. I think the young people really appreciated that. For example, at the Vigil event he invited all present to embrace life – even when it is at its weakest, in difficulty or at its most vulnerable. He stressed how all people are worthy of love. He said that God’s love is greater than all our problems and the worst fall is to remain down and not to allow ourselves to be helped up. At a time when so many peo­ple find it hard to cope with the burdens of their past or difficult present, his words were encouraging and life-giving. He spoke about Mary as the person who was ready to take a risk, to be committed and to say a very clear ‘yes’, and at a time when so many find any sort of commitment difficult, what he said was fairly counter-cultural but it was incredibly well received. And when he invited the young people present to pray in silence, the stillness that fell on those hundreds of thousands was amazing and it went on and on. There would be so many themes to comment on. On the first day of the Post-WYD programme, Jesus Moran, Co-President of the Focolare Movement, described the Pope’s talks at the World Youth Day as the synthesis of all the main themes of his Pontificate. The talks from the WTD are all available on line and for anyone wanting to go deeper they are well worth a read.

Where next for the WYD?

The next World Youth Day will be in Lisbon in 2022.

Where next for GV?

This year is very full for us. From Panama we go straight to Cuba, Guatemala and El Salvador. In March we will be in Italy before leaving for a six week tour in Portugal and in the autumn we will be in Germany.

See also New City January 2019 ‘Gen Verde – spirituality on the road’

Photo archive of the WYD