PANAMA CITY: Pope Francis celebrated mass with hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims in Panama Sunday as he wound up a five-day visit during which he defended Central American migrants and acknowledged the Church had been hurt by sex abuse scandals.
The pope, who on Saturday admitted the Church had been “wounded” by a deepening clergy sex abuse crisis, celebrated a giant mass to round off the World Youth Day celebrations at a park on the outskirts of Panama City.
“I ask you not to let the fervor of these days grow cold,” Francis said as he looked out at the pilgrims who had turned the park into a colorful sea of flags, with the capital’s towering skyline in the background.
“Go back to your parishes and communities, to your families and your friends, and share this experience, so that others can resonate with the strength and enthusiasm that is yours.”
“We are on a journey, keep walking, keep living the faith and sharing it. Do not forget that you are not the tomorrow, you are not the ‘meantime’, you are the now of God.”
“And please, don’t forget to pray for me,” he said.
After mass, held early in the morning to avoid Panama’s high temperatures, the 82-year-old Argentine headed to meet a group of young people living with AIDS and HIV at the Good Samaritan home in the city.
One of the residents, Raul Miranda, 31, was waiting to meet the pope in a wheelchair. He said he had been living on the streets before being taken in by the home.
“Very often we are rejected, discriminated against by society, so when the pope chose this place it motivates us to move forward against discrimination,” he said.
As part of the ceremony, the pope received offerings at the altar from three young people wrapped in the flags of their countries, including the yellow blue and red of troubled Venezuela, where 29 people have been killed in several days of clashes after the opposition leader declared himself president.
The Vatican said Francis was being kept abreast of developments in nearby Venezuela during his visit. In a statement on Thursday, his spokesman said he supported all efforts to save the population from further suffering.
At the end of the mass, a Vatican official said the next WYD would take place in Lisbon in 2022.
“The pope made a passionate exhortation for young people to put their Christian faith front and center in their daily lives and not in some distant future,” said Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies professor at Virginia University in the US.
“In the context of marked Catholic decline in Latin America, especially Central America, the Argentine pontiff understands that without its young people the Church has no future,” he told AFP.
On Saturday, at a mass in the landmark Cathedral of Santa Maria La Antigua in Panama City, Francis warned of the “weariness of hope that comes from seeing a Church wounded by sin, which has so often failed to hear all those cries.”
At a lunch meeting with 10 young pilgrims, Francis said sex abuse by the clergy was “a horrible crime,” according to one of the guests.
Later, at a massive vigil that the organizers said drew 600,000 pilgrims, the pope called on young people to reject the temptation to live their lives online and urged them to get involved in their communities.
Life was not “in the cloud, waiting to be downloaded, a new app to be discovered, or a technique of mental self-improvement,” the pontiff said during his grandfatherly discourse.
The Argentine pope has used his encounter with young people in Central America to speak out repeatedly in defense of migrants, and address other problems affecting the region such as poverty, drug trafficking, violence and what he said was a regional “plague” of murders of women.
In a swipe at US President Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall against migrants, the pope said at a giant prayer meeting on Saturday that it was “senseless” to condemn every immigrant “as a threat to society.”