KAUKAUNA — As 15 young adults and their ministry leaders head to Panama next week for World Youth Day, they are telling themselves this is a “pilgrimage not a vacation.” But whatever they call it, they are excited for the opportunity that will bring them together with Pope Francis and Catholics from around the world.
“It’s amazing. I never thought I’d get to do something like this. Just to be in the presence of the pope. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime,” said Sue Zwiers, a faith formation leader at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Kaukauna.
Zwiers will be accompanying the group that will fly out of Chicago on Jan. 17 and return on Jan. 29. They will leave from Kaukauna after receiving a blessing from Fr. Kyle Sladek, parochial vicar at St. Katharine Drexel Parish.
The pilgrims range in age from 18 to 25 and come from the parishes in Kaukauna (St. Katharine Drexel and Holy Cross) and from SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Hortonville. They will be accompanied by Zwiers, who is also discipleship coordinator for the Kaukauna Catholic Parishes, and Tina Ellenbecker, Youth Ministry/High School coordinator at SS. Peter and Paul Parish. The two women organized the local group after a minister from St. Katharine Drexel sent out an appeal for other Fox Valley Catholics to attend.
Their itinerary has them arriving in Panama on Friday, Jan. 18. Zwier said the group will have a tour guide and a translator, though some of the local pilgrims do speak Spanish.
Ellenbecker said the group, which will be hosted by parish communities, will participate in a program called “Days in the Diocese” from Friday to Monday. “We will share meals, celebrate Masses, pray and experience the local culture of local parishioners,” said Ellenbecker. “We feel very blessed to have the chance to experience this. We are hoping to possibly be able to serve others during our time with the local parishioners.”
They will be staying in a small town about two and one-half hours from Panama City. On Tuesday, the group will travel to Panama City and join other world pilgrims.
“I attended World Youth Day in 2002 in Toronto and feel completely honored and blessed to be able to attend again this year,” Ellenbecker said. “I feel that one of the greatest things about World Youth Day is the fact that 200,000 to 300,000 young people come together from all over the world, and they are on fire for their faith. It shows that we are truly one church — one strong, united church.”
The mornings in Panama will consist of catechesis sessions by language given by bishops and priests. The afternoons will consist of cultural activities and youth festivals. There will be opportunities for reconciliation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. On Friday, they will pray the Stations of the Cross led by Pope Francis. Saturday will be the pilgrim walk and prayer vigil, culminating on Sunday with Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
“It is such an amazing blessing to be able to receive Jesus, surrounded by … young people of all different nationalities, speaking different languages, but when it comes to our beautiful Catholic faith, we all speak the same language: the language of love for one another,” said Ellenbecker.
She said she has done a lot of mission trips with her students over the years, but nothing compares to World Youth Day. When the Fox Valley group returns, she said, they will be able to share the experience with others in their home parishes and local communities.
“Any time you work with young adults, anything that brings them closer to our Lord is a gift,” she said. “Being around other young people from all other the world and around our Catholic Church is faith in action. It is an experience of a lifetime.”
Both ministers are grateful for all the support their parishes have given.
“It would not have been possible for our folks to go without their help and generosity,” Ellenbecker said. Zwiers added that World Youth Day has written a prayer for the event. The Kaukauna parishes published it in their bulletins so parishioners can pray for the pilgrims as they make this pilgrimage of a lifetime.