By Manuel Rueda
Catholic News Service
COLON, Panama (CNS) — At the entrance to the Panama Canal, the city of Colon is bursting with commerce. Its duty-free zone is the largest in Central America, and its port facilities handle 2.9 million containers of goods each year.
But in January, Colon also will be teeming with spiritual activity. The city of 250,000 is one of the most active participants in Days in the Dioceses, the week set aside for World Youth Day pilgrims to interact with local parishes.
Colon, an hour’s drive from Panama’s capital, hopes to host 15,000 pilgrims Jan. 14-20. The diocese has a full week of activities set up for pilgrims who choose to make it their base.
“This is something historic” said Lourdes Velasquez, a resident of Colon who has volunteered to host pilgrims during the event. Velasquez has signed up to host eight pilgrims in her three-room home.
“We don’t want people to stay in schools or gyms, we want them to feel like they’re part of our family” she said.
The activities in Colon will include city tours, discussions of its social problems, and a night of musical and cultural presentations.
Pilgrims with a thirst for adventure also can sign up to spend a couple nights in remote jungle villages that are part of the diocese, but are only accessible by river.
The diocese is setting aside a day for pilgrims to reach out to the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Young people will be encouraged to visit a home for the elderly and a local orphanage, where they will be invited to volunteer with tasks that are needed or simply interact with the people there.
“We want people to feel the church’s missionary spirit,” said Joan Berrio, 29, general coordinator for World Youth Day activities in the Diocese of Colon.
Local volunteers told Catholic News Service that Colon recently has gone through rough times, with thousands of people losing their jobs at the port as business dries up from neighboring countries.
That has led to drug problems in some neighborhoods and to increasing levels of poverty, with illegal tenants taking over buildings abandoned by owners who have given up on some of the city’s neighborhoods.
But young church leaders are hoping that these issues will not dampen Days in the Dioceses. Instead, they see the event as something that could encourage local leaders to keep on working toward a better future.
“Despite all the difficulties, people here do not lose hope,” Berrio said. “And I think that World Youth Day will renew people’s faith, highlight the positive aspects of our city and show us that not all is lost.”
To sustain its activities during Days in the Dioceses, Colon’s church leaders are trying to recruit 100 volunteers at each of the diocese’s 23 parishes.
Yarlene Allen, a volunteer with the logistics committee, said she decided to get involved because she went to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro and wants others to experience the event. She said she keeps in touch with the family she stayed with during Rio’s Days in the Dioceses.
“It’s a marvelous experience,” Allen said. “You meet other young people from other cultures, who also want to follow Jesus and see the pope.”
Organizers in Colon said pilgrims from Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic and Gabon have signed up to spend Days in the Dioceses in their area.
But Colon is far from the only option. All of Panama’s seven dioceses will host pilgrims during the week that precedes World Youth Day, and dioceses in nearby Nicaragua and Costa Rica also are participating.
World Youth Day’s official internet site, https://panama2019.pa, allows pilgrims to request the place they would prefer to go to when they register for Days in the Dioceses.
Whatever the location, the experience is “unique” said Miguel Pinilla, a Colon volunteer who attended the last World Youth Day, in Krakow, Poland.
“It’s really great to see so many young people sharing their faith and searching for the purpose that God has for them in life,” Pinilla said.