By Kelly Sankowski
Catholic News Service
PANAMA CITY (CNS) — As she welcomed World Youth Day pilgrims to the “Garden of Forgiveness,” Ileana Madrid of Panama City said she saw volunteering at the park as “an opportunity to show that God loves us a lot.”
“(Jesus) is on the cross because he loves us,” she said. “His greatest gift is he forgives our sins.”
During the “Renew Me” experience, pilgrims were guided through a journey of reflection, confession and celebration.
As pilgrims moved past the “Draw Near” section of the garden, where volunteers welcomed them Jan. 25, they had a moment to stop in the “Review” area to examine their consciences in front of a statue of Mary, as a volunteer played music on the guitar and sang in Spanish.
Once they were prepared to go to confession, volunteers guided them to a priest who spoke their language. They titled this stage of the journey “open,” because, “God walks with us to pour out mercy to the open and well-disposed heart,” the pilgrim guidebook said.
“It was really cool seeing all the people (and) how they have it for everyone so they can speak in their own language,” said Brianna Jacobson, a sophomore at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota.
Kirsten Rotz, the campus minister with the group from St. Mary’s, said the experience was “another reminder of the universal church,” because it is the same sacrament as at home.
Though she was nervous to go at first, Daisy Aviles, 20, of Houston, said afterward, “It feels like a relief being able to have confessed.”
After the pilgrims received absolution, they walked through the “Rejoice” section, past volunteers cheering “felicidades!” (congratulations). Some volunteers gave the pilgrims hugs, and others took pictures with them to celebrate.
“It is a joy to reconcile with the Lord,” said Miriam Nieto, a volunteer from Panama City. “Some of them come with a broken heart, (but) after they go to reconciliation, they become a new person. Then we give them a hug to celebrate.”
Meanwhile, near the entrance of the park, the Hindu Community of Panama City gave the World Youth Day pilgrims a different type of grace — a free cold bottle of water in the midst of the 90-degree heat.
“We want to be a part of the great event happening in Panama,” said Vipul Patel, one of the volunteers from the community, who noted that Pope Francis values harmony, peace and love, and “Hinduism has the same thinking.”
“We are giving water, because we know Panama is hot,” he said. “We want to give a small gift to the pilgrims (of World Youth Day).”
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Sankowski is a reporter for Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.