Presidents from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama were all in attendance during Pope Francis’s visit in Panama City. Unsurprisingly, President of Nicaragua Danny Ortega did not make the pilgrimage.
“Our trip was very long but it was worth it because we came here to Panama City because of our faith, our Christian faith,” said pilgrim Sawadogo Kiswensidad, who travelled from Burkina Faso.
After Mass, Francis was heading to a church-run home for people infected with HIV, a visit that is likely to send a strong message in Panama, where AIDS carries a stigma.
“Many of the people we help here have been rejected by their families, by people in the street,” said the Rev. Domingo Escobar, director of the Casa Hogar El Buen Samaritano . “But here they receive Christian help, as the church wants.”
Francis then meets with Youth Day volunteers before heading back to Rome.
On Saturday, Francis lunched with some of the pilgrims in an encounter the Vatican described as familiar and festive. The young people said they were surprised at Francis’ informality and interest in their questions.
Brenda Noriega, a Mexican-born youth minister from San Bernardino, California, said she told Francis that the sex abuse scandal in the United States was a “crisis right now we cannot avoid talking about.” She said Francis called abuse a “horrible crime” and assured her that the church was committed to supporting victims.
She said Francis also stressed the need for prayer, noting that he sent U.S. bishops on a retreat with his own preacher earlier this month ahead of his big summit on abuse prevention in February at the Vatican.
“For me as a youth minister, that means a lot,” Noriega told reporters after the luncheon. “Youth ministers, we have been with people who have been angry but sometimes we forget about prayer. We react too easy and too fast. So I think what His Holiness is telling us and the church is to first pray, build community and not forget about accompaniment.”
It was the first time the abuse scandal has come up publicly during Francis’ four-day visit to Panama. The crisis hasn’t erupted publicly in Central America in the same way it has in the U.S., where the Catholic hierarchy is facing a crisis in confidence over its decades-long failures to protect young people from priests who rape and molest children.
During the luncheon, held on the campus of Panama City’s main seminary, the guests peppered Francis with questions.
Palestinian pilgrim Dana Salah said she asked Francis about the flight of Christians from the lands of Jesus’ birth. She said the pope assured her “`Palestine will always remain the land of Jesus.”‘
Emilda Santo Montezuma, an indigenous Panamanian, said she spoke to Francis about the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples – two issues particularly dear to Francis’ heart which will be the focus of a meeting of Amazonian bishops at the Vatican later this year. Francis’ support, she said, would embolden indigenous people to fight for their rights.
“It fills me with a lot of strength and to say to young people that we can do a lot, and more than we have done,” she told reporters.