Pilgrims from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend were among 600,000 people gathered together for the Vigil of the Pope in Panama on Saturday, Jan. 26. During the vigil, pilgrims heard a speech from the Holy Father, various testimonies of young people and musical performances, and prayed with the Blessed Sacrament before sleeping in an open-air field. This nightlong event would culminate the next morning with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, a high point of the World Youth Day celebration.
Through the lens of these large-scale events, it could be an easy conclusion to draw that World Youth Day was solely an opportunity for pilgrims to participate in large, spiritually fulfilling events within an international community. The 2019 Panamanian World Youth Day pilgrimage proved to be much more. It was an invitation for each participant to consider how they might attain all the graces intended for them on the journey.
It is a beautiful moment when a pilgrim can walk into a church and be moved to prayer and reverence by the beauty of the art and religious artifacts: However, many times, the graces of a pilgrimage arrive in unsuspecting ways, because Jesus calls each pilgrim to encounter Him in unique moments. Encounters with Jesus happen at large events, through shared community and prayer. Taking the opportunity to fully participate and intentionally sharing your story when you arrive back at home also allows for spiritual growth and maturity. There are also graces to be found in the encounter of those around you and in the embrace of any suffering or hardship that a pilgrim might encounter. Father Matthew Coonan, at the last Mass the participants celebrated together in Panama, shared in his homily that God will speak to us and we will know, because He will whisper. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades and the pilgrims of the diocese exuded joy as they entered into the community of pilgrims to embrace the journey and the graces of the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama.
‘I want to bring back the message of happiness’
By Dane Litchfield
The theme of World Youth Day in 2019 was “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This simple “yes” from Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an act of faith. It demonstrates an openness to God’s bigger plan in the lives of His children. There were many opportunities for pilgrims to reflect on this theme, as well as employ it in practical ways, during the 10-day pilgrimage to Panama.
Dane Litchfield, a senior at Bellmont High School and parishioner of St. Mary of the Assumption, Decatur, had the opportunity to say “yes” to a larger participation in World Youth Day events. During the Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis, Litchfield was chosen to read the reflection of the 12th Station. Another pilgrim from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Renate Kurtzweg, Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Fort Wayne, was chosen from the delegation to carry the cross at the same station.
Litchfield had already given his “yes” in service to several diocesan retreats, events and World Youth Day formation meetings, helping in whatever way possible. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also contacted the diocese looking for youth to participate in events and liturgies, and Litchfield was extremely excited to be nominated.
He credited his decision to travel to World Youth Day in Panama to a Holy Cross College retreat, Saints and Scholars, which he first attended in 2016. “It was such a powerful experience for me because it really tied together the academic study of theology and the spiritual side of my faith. Ever since then, that fire that was instilled in me kept driving me forward.”
More than a “yes” to just being open deeper spiritual growth and pursuing a future in theological studies, Litchfield described the profundity of his experience in adoration during the retreat. “I just kept sitting there asking God, ‘Why me? Why choose me?’ I just kept hearing in the back of my head, ‘I am with you’ over and over again. The song ‘You Are Mine’ started playing with the refrain ‘Do not be afraid, I am with you’ and since that moment, my life has been bright and full. My heart was everywhere and all I could see is light.”
Litchfield saw World Youth Day as an extension of that moment and said that it made it really easy for him to say ‘yes’ to attend. “I am so inspired by the bigness and the universality of the Church. This is what heaven is going to be like: all these pilgrims coming together, praising Jesus for all of eternity. We are walking among the physical communion of saints right now, here in Panama.”
The journey to get to World Youth Day turned out to be an active act of faith for Litchfield, who said that it wasn’t easy. He shared his gratitude for the momentous assistance he received from his parish to attend the international event. He wrote articles for his parish bulletin on what he was learning in formation, and slowly, donations began to arrive in the mail for him. He also worked a part time job at a local Pizza Hut to help underwrite the cost of his trip. “I’ve learned the value of money, but also of how important it was to be spiritually prepared for this trip.”
“Before these experiences in my life, I treated my faith as a textbook with no life. There was no connection or reality for me. But the Saints and Scholars retreat, which opened me up to being willing to say ‘yes’ to Panama has helped me focus on my relationship with Christ and how very real that is,” Litchfield said.
“After World Youth Day, I want to bring back the message of happiness. There is such great joy in the world and sometimes our society grays it out. We need to live this Gospel of Life and combat the culture of death.” Litchfield beamed. “The way we can do that is through a culture of life, as we look to what is truly holy in our lives and bring that as joy to other people. Joy is a contagious virtue, and it’s my goal to bring it back to Indiana.”
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