Great anticipation despite social problems

Great anticipation despite social problems

In Panama, even the poorest are preparing to receive guests for World Youth Day. Around a quarter of a million participants are expected in January – and pose logistical problems, not least for the country.

In the remote village of Santa Rosa in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, there is usually not much going on. The bustling capital Panama City is more than an hour's drive away. Instead of high-rises, coffee and banana trees line the street here. But for several weeks there has been nervousness among the 500 or so residents: guests from abroad have announced their arrival for the upcoming World Youth Day.

The villagers do not yet know how many of them there will be and where they will come from. Nevertheless, almost everyone has agreed to host pilgrims. "I want to show people our village," says Ingris. The 35-year-old is a single mother of six children. Their house has just two rooms. "But there's room next door at my mother's house, too."

"Days of encounter" in host families

World Youth Day, which Pope Francis is also expected to attend, will be held in Central America for the first time at the end of January. First, participants spend a few "days of encounter" with host families throughout Panama, as well as in Costa Rica, Mexico and El Salvador.

The highlight and conclusion of the world meeting will then be the days of 22. to 27. January in Panama City. While World Youth Days in European countries are often drowned out in the abundance of large-scale events, the anticipation in Panama has already swept the entire country. The blue and red logo of the event is stuck on many cars and adorns the flags that are hoisted in front of almost all the churches in the country. Even at the airport it is emblazoned on large posters: "Te esperamos" – "We are waiting for you", is written next to it.

Panama with social problems

The meeting also brings Panama's social problems into focus: Although the capital, with its skyscrapers and large canal harbor, conveys an image of wealth and economic success, the country's social and economic problems are also in the spotlight. Nevertheless, a large part of the country's population of about 3.6 million lives in poverty.

Young people are often denied access to education, and some slip into crime. Many can not raise the 250 dollars for the participation in the World Youth Day. Organizers say solidarity fund will ensure no one remains excluded.

Longing for change in the church

Many young people in the strongly Catholic country are looking forward to meeting the Pope. "He is very popular," says 26-year-old Yithzak. The young man helps to organize the "Days of Encounter" in the diocese of Colon in one of the poorest areas of the country. "In the current situation where Pope Francis is being blamed for the abuse cases, we want to tell him that we are behind him."

Nevertheless, the Panamanian youths also longed for changes in the church: "It must find a way to adapt its teachings to the reality of people's lives." Yithzak sees a need for reform, especially in the role of women and sexual morality.

"The meeting will help young people believe in their potential," Archbishop of Panama City Jose Domingo Ulloa is convinced. "Pope Francis deliberately chose Central America as the venue for World Youth Day because he wants to go to the margins of society," he says, not without pride.

Preparations well on track

Ulloa sees preparations well on track. Circa 209.000 pilgrims have already registered, most of them from Latin America, but also a good 2.200 from Germany, significantly more than expected in this country. In total, the organizers expect a quarter of a million participants. At the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, despite significantly lower registration numbers, about 1.5 million people came in the end.

Among other things, the postponement of the final service at short notice and a breakdown of the subway had caused chaotic conditions there. The major event will also be a challenge for Panama City, with its chronically congested transportation network. A second metro line and a new airport terminal to transport pilgrims are currently under construction.

Archbishop Ulloa is nevertheless calm: "It is the adults who always and everywhere see difficulties, for the young people all this is no problem."And Ingris in Santa Rosa, a good 50 kilometers away, also has other worries at the moment: Until the guests arrive, she wants to do some major cleaning and tidy up the house in any case.

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