Pope Francis will make his first trip to Panama on Wednesday for a gathering of more than 150,000 young Catholics from across the globe at the World Youth Day festival.
The 82-year-old pope will use the major event on the Catholic calendar to address the problems of poverty, corruption and migration in his native Latin America, church officials said.
“Our youth, particularly in Central America, need opportunities,” said Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa.
Often, their “hard reality” was a choice between emigration or “falling into the clutches of drug traffickers,” said Ulloa, in Rome for a preparatory visit.
It will be Francis’ third World Youth Day event, having presided over the gathering in Rio de Janeiro shortly after his election as pope in 2013 and again in Krakow, Poland in 2016.
In Poland, he challenged conservative governments in Central and Eastern Europe to soften their resistance to migrants seeking refuge from conflict in the Middle East.
A voice for migrants
In a similar way, he is expected in Panama to stand up for migrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras who make up the majority of those traveling in caravans to the US border, despite the opposition of President Donald Trump and the American right.
“Many of the young people who are participating in the WYD are immigrants themselves,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.
Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans cross the border into Mexico every year, heading north in search of a better life. Millions more have fled economic collapse and political repression in Venezuela, straining social services in neighboring countries.
“The recent image of migrant caravans from Central America, with all their suffering, will be very much in mind,” said Ulloa.
Youth ‘can change the world’
In an advance message to the event, Francis said many young people, both believers and non-believers, had “a strength that can change the world.”
On Friday, he said in a separate video message to the World Indigenous Youth gathering in Soloy, Panama, to hold on to their cultures and roots by fighting marginalization, exclusion, waste and impoverishment.
“Return to native cultures. Take care of the roots, because from the roots comes the strength that will make you grow, prosper and bear fruit,” he told hundreds of young indigenous Catholics who will join the WYD gathering next week.
Fighting poverty will be a key theme. Extreme poverty in Latin America hit its highest level for nine years in 2017, according to a report by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
It said more than 10 percent of Latin Americans — 62 million people — were living in “extreme poverty.”
The Argentine pontiff lands in Panama on Wednesday after a 13-hour flight from Rome to begin his seventh trip to his native Latin America.
“The pope wants to get closer to young people, to those who are suffering, to send a message of hope,” said Gisotti.
Last trip marred by scandal
His last visit to the region, to Peru and Chile a year ago, was overshadowed by protests over the cover-up by church authorities of pedophile priests.
“It’s a subject which is generating a lot of attention in the church,” said Gisotti, who said the pope had “no plans to meet with victims” during his visit to Panama.
The pope will break away from the celebrations on Friday to visit a juvenile detention center in Pacora, outside Panama City. It was Francis’ personal wish to do the side visit, the spokesman said.
“That’s something that came from the pope’s heart,” according to Gisotti.
He will also visit a center for young people with AIDS on the last day of his trip.
It is the first time Francis has visited Panama as pope, in what will be the 26th trip of his papacy, taking in 40 countries. John Paul II visited the tiny Central American country for a day during a regional tour in 1983.