TORONTO (CCN) - World Youth Day is still 11 months away, but Canadians have already had a taste of what to expect on the pilgrimage to Panama.
Last November Canada's WYD co-ordinator, Isabel Correa, took a team of five youth ministry leaders from across the country to visit Panama City, meet with the WYD organizing committee and take a tour of some sites for the event taking place next Jan. 22 - 27.
"They are extremely excited about welcoming the world," said Correa. "The organizing team, which is all made up of young adults, are very involved in youth and young adult ministry, very enthusiastic about welcoming Canadians."
As a major part of the WYD celebrations, Correa and the Canadian delegation established a Days in the Diocese partnership with Diocese of Colon Kuna Yala, a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Panama.
Days in the Diocese is a tradition that began during WYD Paris in 1997. In the days leading up to the main week of celebrations, the church in France promoted several opportunities for pilgrims to meet with the people in local parishes.
For WYD Panama, Canadian pilgrims have an invitation to discover the richness of the church in Colon Kuna Yala on the northern coast of the country.
"We established a great partnership there," said Correa. "We went to see and meet with the Kuna (indigenous) people and saw the Black Christ and prayed for the young people of Canada and all potential pilgrims coming."
The Black Christ, or "El Cristo Negro de Portobelo," is a major pilgrimage site in the region. The life-size wooden statue of Jesus Christ is venerated by people from all parts of Panama.
Panama is home to 2.59 million Catholics, about 70 per cent of its population. Because of this, Correa said there are many pilgrimage sites and traditions that will be on display during WYD.
The Archdiocese of Panama is one of the oldest in the Americas. It was established around 1514 with the arrival of Franciscan missionaries.
Santa Maria La Antigua is the patroness of Panama City. Her feast day is Jan. 20, just a few days before WYD week. Eight patron saints have been chosen for WYD: St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, St. Juan Diego, Blessed Sor Maria Romero Meneses, St. John Bosco, St. John Paul II, Blessed Oscar Romero, St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima.
"They are people who are very joyful," said Correa. "Although you see the poverty in the streets in certain areas, you also see the simplicity and the warmth of people and the Panamanian pride."
A big part of pilgrimage preparation starts at home. Correa said a good place to start is the preparatory document for the 2018 Synod on Young People.
"That synod document contains many, many points in which to deepen and set up reflections for young adults," she said.
Because WYD Panama will take place in late January, Correa said she is expecting a smaller Canadian delegation than WYD 2016, when about 3,800 Canadians were part of the July event in Krakow, Poland. This time around, the focus will be to attract young adults who are not tied to a school year schedule.
"Right now, we're in the awareness phase and getting people to sign up to social media," said Correa. "We're also looking at, if people want to help in anyway, to become virtual missionaries and help spread the word."