Bishop Charles attended World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, along with 20 other Kiwis and several hundred thousand international pilgrims! Gathered here are his reflections and thoughts as he journeyed through the ten days.
Use these links to quickly navigate to a specific post:
Blog 1 – January 23 | Blog 2 – January 25
Blog 3 – January 28 | Blog 4 – January 29
Blog 5 – February 7 | Photos
Don’t forget to follow Bishop Charles on Facebook to view more photos and read his thoughts.
Blog 1 – January 23
Buenos días a todos
I’m in Panama City for World Youth Day(s).
The last time I was here I was 14 months old; the youngest passenger on a ship traveling between Auckland and Southampton, England. Mum was taking me to her home to be, I guess, ‘shown off’ to her family. It’s great to be ‘back’!
The bienvenidos has been warm from moment we touched down at the airport, meeting up with pilgrims from Kiribati, Tanzania and Venezuela.
Big events aren’t exactly my thing and I’ve never been a groupie. But the thrill of being in the presence of Papa Francesco is of course a big draw for WYD pilgrims. For me it’s the ‘sub narratives’ or the sideline conversations, the chance encounters, that fascinate and feed.
Our wonderful group of Kiwi pilgrims is being hosted by the Parroquia Santiago Apóstol. It’s in a poor area of the city with a rich heart. We are teamed up with groups from Latvia and Ireland and Brazil, and the local young parishioners have welcomed us beautifully.
Less English is spoken here than I imagined (the reach of the USA is prevalent yet resisted) but communication has been not a problem. Viva Spanglish!
I’m hosted with Carmen a lady from the parish, her mother, and Nina the dog. And with me are two Brazilian boys Gabriel and Joao-Victor. JV, a med student, has very good English so the five of us have had fun conversing around the kitchen table.
Wonderful faith-filled hospitality and great coffee. JV and Gabriel are from Rio De Janeiro a massive city with seemingly endless challenges. Alongside the trials of unemployment, one observation of theirs which hit home was this: “Bish, you cannot begin to imagine how hard it is to live in constant insecurity”. They were talking about the violence and crime.
The parish assigned us two minders Nelson and Lis. Nelson is in his 40s and Mr Dependable plus plus. He’s a fireman and rescue official and he has not let us walk a step outside the parish compound without accompanying us. Lis is in her early 20s. She has fantastic English and is as humble a she is determined. I love her story. She is from a poor background, grown up in a tenement block, went to a government school. She loves study and has given it her full focus. She also got herself into a kind of after-school English language, homework and values learning club. Anyhow to cut a long story short she let it slip, beaming, that “last Saturday I got a letter. The letter was accepting me into Med School at Panama Uni”.
I asked if I could meet her parents, and I did, as I sensed I would be in for an experience of the heart. Her Mum cried with joy at the blessing their daughter is for them. To share in the fruits of struggle and determination is a real privilege.
Sunday of course we had Mass which was a real festa. I got the preside and preach nod, and with me was a Bishop from Latvia and Fr Alister Castillo our Kiwi Chaplain along with the PP Padre Rolando and others.
Blog 2 – January 25
We have now transferred from our parish base to the city centre. Hostel Siriri is our new home. It’s a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel but they haven’t changed much. Shared facilities, a communal kitchen, and a fridge where you leave your food well labelled. It’s great. Mercifully, I have been allocated my own room.
Pope Francis has talked quite a lot about Bishops getting the smell of their sheep. It’s an image that ruffles a few feathers but in essence it’s about proximity. Who you – we – spend time with. It is as simple yet profound as that: engagement, whose voices are heard, being challenged or surprised, rather than always agreed with or echoed.
WYD is a chance for Bishops to spend considerable time with young people. Pilgrimage suggests that the ‘where’ of that is formational for all involved. So a humble hostel already sets a tone.
The Melbourne pilgrims led by my mate Archbishop Peter Comensoli are all staying together too. I had a quick streetside catch up with Como today. I had my head in google maps navigating my way back to our base and out of no-where I hear: Hey Chuckles. Only Peter calls me that and there he was waving out.
Some other Ozzie bishops, however, and the Americans have been ambushed by the health and safety ‘experts’ who have decreed that only 4 or 5 star hotels are safe for their pilgrims. Incredible but true. I guess that facilitates the smell of perfumed sheep.
Safety is of course of paramount importance but so is self-responsibility, and risk is simply a factor of life. Sometimes I think the compliance industry is morphing into something beyond care. It’s hard to put a finger on what that is but one thing is for sure: hostels are closer to the stable of Bethlehem than the Hilton. And Papa Francesco’s calls for a poor Church are scrambled by a multitude of well-entrenched habits, policies and excuses (and yes I know I can be part of that too).
The long days are demanding but the encounters are fun and always leave an insight. I’ve just had a catch up with the Vocations Director of the Carmelites in England whom I met at Rome airport last year while waiting at a luggage carousel and with him was the MSC Fathers vocations guy. This morning our group have been at a catechesis session while I’ve been holed up working on my catechesis (for tomorrow). Think I’ve got it sorted. Now it’s kai time.
Blog 3 – January 28
Papa Francesco’s arrival changes everything. The Panamanians are muy emocional – a mix of pride and the emotion that comes from being in the midst of someone truly great. The streets are electric with anticipation. Just a glimpse of this man brings a joy to the heart, with an edge – to do better, to be better, to walk the uncluttered way of Jesus.
Our Kiwi pilgrims have been greatly blessed. Dave Mullin, our tour manager, was able to land us some fantastic tickets to the Opening Ceremony. And Jack spoke to the Pope on behalf of all the Oceania pilgrims and Joanna Viernes was seated right beside him, becoming the world’s most photographed pilgrim. Literally!
Security is ‘panamanian style’. It’s taken seriously but not too seriously. Friendly police are everywhere included armed bandanaed dudes on motorbikes roaring in and out of every convoy. Actually, not sure how friendly they are.
Before the welcoming liturgy/ceremony we Bishops went to a security hub staffed by naval and airforce cadets. Beaming faces greeting us everywhere and once the security check was over the distributing of water and sandwiches soon morphed into a great practice-your-English opportunity for these young cadets.
The Welcome Ceremony was superb. A sea breeze wafted around, the music and choreography was great, and the Pope brimmed with energy, speaking with passion and purpose. Here in Central America the Pope is ‘at home’, free to talk off the cuff, joke with local staff and those standing close by, slap on the back old Bishop friends etc.
The Bishops as usual were corralled into our own sector. It was fine there but an Italian Bishop and I decided to break free and put ourselves a few rows back – no loss of view but a big gain in atmosphere. We were in the middle of pilgrims form Miami of Central American background. So it was exuberance plus, with the bonus of translation service when we couldn’t follow something in Francis’s talk. A great move. And I was in waving closeness to our Aotearoa pilgrims too.
The culture of encounter was the theme of the Pope’s talk. Here’s a taste of what he said: You teach us that encountering one another does not mean having to look alike, or think the same way or do the same things… Not at all… The culture of encounter is a call to dare to keep alive a shared dream… that has a place for everyone. The dream for which Jesus gave his life on the cross, for which the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost…: “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
He also pleaded for a reinvigorated Church through the participation of young people: “Go forward, not to create a parallel Church that would be more ‘fun’ or ‘cool’ thanks to a fancy youth event, as if that were all you needed or wanted… Not at all! With you, we want to rediscover and reawaken the Church’s constant freshness and youth, opening ourselves to a new Pentecost.
Then quoting St Oscar Romero he said: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of rules to be followed, or of prohibitions. Seen that way it puts us off. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely, who demands and asks for my love. Christianity is Christ.”
The streets of Panama City are pulsating with the culture of encounter. We Kiwi pilgrims want to keep that hola alive when we return home. To see every person we meet as a sister and brother, is at the heart of Christianity.
Hola a todos
Blog 4 – January 29
World Youth Day has a great rhythm. It’s not too packed with activities because a crucial part is simply spending time with others reflecting on the common experiences and probing them for deeper meaning. That fits with the idea of encounter and accompaniment which Papa Francesco has been promoting.
Accompaniment is two way. Usually it is billed as the ‘elders’ accompanying the young. That’s vital in any culture and in the Church too. But the dynamic of young people enlightening those older than themselves is vital too. One of the great WYD fruits for me has been sitting in on chats – listening to the questions and insights of our pilgrims.
There is no hierarchy of age in the Church, yet our front window too often gives a very different impression. Francesco preached on Sunday about young people being the Church of now. Of course, that’s not a naïve cult-of-youth soundbite. It’s a plea for participation, commitment and endurance from young people. A culture we might say of belonging.
Catechesis or teaching sessions are part of the WYD programme. The group I was requested to lead was very mixed – Canadians, Thais, some Turks, a group from the USA, Cook Islanders, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Tanzanians and others. Catechesis time was followed by a general Q and A session. I emphasized that any question was welcome; nothing was off the table.
The first three questions from this hugely diverse cultural mix of young people were all broadly speaking about sexuality. Transgender, and being gay – were the first two. A Bishop is exposed answering those. But that’s leadership. I don’t mind putting my neck on the line for love. To pretend that homosexuality and gender dysphoria do not exist or are somehow outside God’s plan for humanity, is a rejection not defense of truth and thus nonsensical. The inadequacy of the commentary on sexuality of some within the Church I believe is impacting negatively on the entire credibility of the Church. And in some areas, it’s time theology caught up with science. Thankfully the recent Synod in Rome on young people acknowledged this.
It was the third question, however, which left me speechless, choking.
A girl from Jamaica stood up, looked me in the eye, and said: All life is a blessing, right Bishop? (Sure, I responded.) Then why does the Church define me as being the result of fornication?
I was reduced to silence for some time, not because I didn’t have a response. But because the thought of that young woman’s pain (and I assumed also her Mum’s) left me only with the language of a lumpy throat: silence.
We, the Church, will always fall short in communicating God’s love. We are human and limited. But every privileged moment of truly sharing another’s pain will be a step of purification and hope for us all and those we encounter.
After the questions were over and the crowds dispersed, I found that Jamaican girl and hugged her. And through her tears she simply said: thank you.
Blog 5 – February 7
Since return from Panama many have asked me something along the lines of, what impressed you most…? Lasting ponderings I think are what count.
I left for WYD with few expectations. But I return convinced that it is truly transformational. For everyone.
Pope Francis during WYD emphasized the need for a culture of encounter, both within the Church and within broader society. There are lots of ways to imagine that. Talking with people rather than about or at people is one. Making lasting friendships rather than superficial virtual ones is another.
A primacy of encounter also shapes ministry and our vision for a parish or iwi whakapono. There is a tendency for parish ministry to become increasingly bureaucratic. Our contemporary instruments of communications – iPhones, computers etc tend to see us spend more time seated than on our feet.
Pope Francis would love it if we Bishops, priests, youth ministers and parish staff etc were seen less often in offices and more often in people’s homes, classrooms, our streets and fields; talking rather than typing.
The best encounter is face to face (incidentally maybe that explains something of young people’s attraction to Adoration). Ear to ear. Jesus was a walker. Constantly on pilgrimage to the final destination of Jerusalem. Yes, of course our world has changed. But I don’t think anyone dies wishing they spent more time in the office.
The challenge I am coming home with is to spend less time behind my desk. That might sound trite, but it just might also be transformative. I feel great that today I spent half the day in one of our Colleges. Thanks to all at St Peter’s for a beautiful Mass and chat time.