Matthew Furtado has never been to World Youth Day before, but he has heard the stories.
“World Youth Day is very outside my comfort zone. I’m not a big fan of crowds, heat, or not sleeping in my own bed,” said Furtado, a young adult from St. Matthew’s Parish in Surrey.
The thought of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people makes Furtado uneasy, not to mention the possibility of sleeping on school gymnasium floors or other shared spaces near people he has never met.
Despite his discomfort, Furtado booked a flight to Panama with eight friends from St. Matthew’s. He said he feels compelled to go to World Youth Day and to encourage the other young adults travelling there.
“I really do feel called to take this opportunity to step outside my comfort zone as to give myself opportunities to trust God more, even if it’s in small ways,” like putting up with Panama heat, which averages in the low 30s this time of year.
Furtado, on the verge of completing an undergraduate degree in business and communication at Simon Fraser University, said he is leaving comforts behind for two weeks to learn what God has planned for him next.
“This is the first time in my life where I have no idea what I'm doing next year. In Grade 11, I knew next year I'd be in Grade 12. In my third year of university, I knew next year I’d be in my fourth year of university,” he said. “Now I see my whole life ahead of me, and uncertainty mixed with indecisiveness is scary!”
World Youth Day, with the organized chaos that inevitably comes from crowding hundreds of thousands of young adults into one field, “is an opportunity for me to remove myself from my daily routine and to listen to God in new ways, particularly what he wants of my life.”
Catholic Christian Outreach member Rachel Wong is also flying from Vancouver to Panama this month hoping to find answers about next steps in her life.
“My great expectation for WYD is for greater clarity for God’s vocation call for my life, and for this generation of youth to be filled with the Holy Spirit and be ready to follow the will of God in their lives,” she said.
Another first-time WYD pilgrim, Wong said she’s hoping the trip will also give her opportunities to pray for and evangelize the people she meets along the way.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, prayed with about 50 local pilgrims headed to Panama during a Mass and send-off event in Vancouver Jan. 5.
“Dear young friends,” he told those gathered at St. Mary’s Parish, “we promise to accompany you with our prayers, that your participation in this great event will bring you even closer to Jesus and strengthen your commitment to his Church.”
Speaking on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany, he reflected on the wise men who travelled a long distance to see Jesus and learn from him. “The Magi remind us, whether we recognize it or not, that everyone is on a pilgrimage in their own life, to know the living God, to experience his care for us, and to receive his mercy and his love,” he said.
“When they saw the star, they did not hesitate to leave the security of their home. They had the courage to follow that star: to set out towards the unknown, on a journey no doubt filled with uncertainty.”
Though still unsure about what exactly will unfold in Panama, Furtado said he’ll focus his trip primarily on prayer. A few weeks before his flight, pilgrims from St. Matthew’s collected hundreds of prayer requests from the community, which they will bring to the WYD closing Mass with Pope Francis.
“One older parishioner stopped me after Mass to sincerely thank us for taking her prayer intentions to Panama. I could tell in her eyes that our pilgrimage to World Youth Day gave her a sense of hope for the future of our parish,” he said.
Pope John Paul II launched World Youth Day in 1985, in response to the eagerness of 300,000 young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to celebrate Palm Sunday. The first WYD was celebrated in Rome the following year, and it has been held internationally every two or three years since.
This year’s official WYD events begin in Panama City Jan. 22. Several days of events – including daily Masses, catechesis, praise and worship, stations of the cross, confessions, and entertainment – will culminate with a final Mass with Pope Francis Jan. 27.
About 70 pilgrims had registered for WYD through the Archdiocese of Vancouver as of Jan. 15.