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Pilgrims’ stories from World Youth Day

South Floridians who traveled to Panama share their Kairos moments

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MIAMI | Carmen Hilburn’s World Youth Day experience revolved around citizenship, both the physical and spiritual kind.

The St. Mary Cathedral School teacher traveled to Panama in January with 145 members of the Neocatechumenal Way from Miami and Orlando. Hilburn was born in Panama but knew little beyond that. The daughter of a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, she lived in eight different cities and four countries before settling in Miami last year.

“What better reason than to go on pilgrimage back to where I was born,” she reasoned. A trip to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016 hadn’t worked out. It seemed Panama would fall through as well until she joined the Neocat community at St. Kieran Parish in Miami.

“Literally, I joined the community and an hour later I got the call that I could go to Panama with them. I had given up on Panama and God made it happen,” said Hilburn, 26, who teaches fourth-graders at the cathedral school.

Her first shock was on arrival there. While waiting to clear immigration, an officer asked her, “What are you doing in this line? You were born here. You’re a citizen.”

“Fun fact,” she thought, and went on to enjoy the sights and sounds, the prayers and catechesis, the presence and words of Pope Francis at World Youth Day. “Everything is beautiful,” she recalled. But nothing really seemed to touch her personally.

Then on Sunday, Jan. 27, after a tiring six-mile walk back from the papal Mass, and more walking around the historic neighborhoods of Panama City, she and the four younger girls she was chaperoning sat down to a home-cooked meal of arroz con pollo. The talk at the table turned to Protestantism.

“My dad was a convert,” Hilburn shared. That’s when she realized that Panama represented much more than her physical birthplace. Her dad, a North Carolina native, converted to Catholicism in Panama after meeting her mom, a native of the Dominican Republic who herself was confirmed there. Her parents were married in Panama. Hilburn had been baptized there.

St. Mary Cathedral School teachers Carmen Hilburn, left, and Anita Tharayil took this quick selfie after finding each other in the midst of the crowd at Campo San Juan Pablo II, where Pope Francis and World Youth Day pilgrims would celebrate an evening vigil Jan. 26 and Sunday Mass Jan. 27.

Photographer: COURTESY

St. Mary Cathedral School teachers Carmen Hilburn, left, and Anita Tharayil took this quick selfie after finding each other in the midst of the crowd at Campo San Juan Pablo II, where Pope Francis and World Youth Day pilgrims would celebrate an evening vigil Jan. 26 and Sunday Mass Jan. 27.

“If all these things happened in Panama, that meant not only was I physically born here, but my whole salvation history started in Panama,” she realized. “So I started sobbing.”

World Youth Day had finally impacted her personally. A priest friend later described it as a Kairos moment, when human time – Chronos – meets God’s time – Kairos.

“The Lord allowed all of this to happen so that I can witness and realize his time and my time in my salvation history. It was just too much for words,” Hilburn said. “It’s definitely solidified my need and reliance on God… If he put all of these things in my path so that I would witness this, and I did nothing to get it and I did nothing to really deserve it, what will he do for me when I really dedicate myself to him?”

 

ST. ANTHONY PRAYER

Hilburn’s friend and fellow teacher at St. Mary Cathedral School, Anita Tharayil, also went to World Youth Day for the first time, but with another group, the Jesus Youth. Tharayil, 25, who teaches third-graders, is a member of St. Jude Knanaya Syro-Malabar Church in Fort Lauderdale.

“I feel like I went at the most inconvenient time in my life,” said the first-year teacher, adding that she is fortunate to work in a Catholic school that allowed her to the take time off. “I had desired to go previously but it never worked out.”

Her Kairos moment occurred Saturday, at the park where pilgrims gathered for the evening vigil and Sunday Mass with the pope. She had been hoping to see Hilburn somewhere in the city but communication by text or phone had been difficult.

“I kept praying to the Lord, I really want to see Carmen. And I said a prayer to St. Anthony. I knew that Carmen wasn’t lost but…” Within five minutes, she saw her. “I was in such shock,” Tharayil said. “I just kept screaming her name. We took that picture and never saw each other again.”

The message that impacted her revolves around the theme of this World Youth Day: Mary’s fiat, or yes, to God.

“This little girl was entrusted with the salvation of the world. That’s the image that keeps coming to me,” Tharayil said. “Not to forget the Lord and to continue to say my yes.”

 

‘MAGICAL’

Izzy Rennella, top right, who went with a group from Little Flower Church in Coral Gables, poses with fellow Miami pilgrim Gabriella Mora, of Blessed Trinity Parish in Miami Springs, after arriving at the park where the overnight vigil and Mass with Pope Francis would take place, the weekend of Jan. 26 and 27.

Photographer: COURTESY

Izzy Rennella, top right, who went with a group from Little Flower Church in Coral Gables, poses with fellow Miami pilgrim Gabriella Mora, of Blessed Trinity Parish in Miami Springs, after arriving at the park where the overnight vigil and Mass with Pope Francis would take place, the weekend of Jan. 26 and 27.

At 19, Izzy Rennella is a World Youth Day veteran. When she was 16, she went to World Youth Day in Krakow with a group from her parish, Little Flower in Coral Gables. She went again this year, but this time, her 66-year-old mom came along.

“It was really special because she’s basically the one who showed me the faith and how to pray,” said Rennella, now a freshman at Miami-Dade College.

Rennella also took over @CatholicMiami, the archdiocese’s Instagram account, sharing videos and photos of her experience with Catholics back home. Her excitement came through. “It’s magical,” she said afterward. “You realize you’re not the only Jesus freak.”

Being a second-timer didn’t diminish the impact. “I went for the sole purpose of growing in my faith. Because Poland lit that spark in me and now I wanted to make it bigger. And Panama just made it 10 times bigger,” Rennella said.


DEATH AND REBIRTH

Rennella’s group leader, in Panama and in Poland, was Jorge Santibañez, director of religious education and youth minister at Little Flower. If her mom was among the oldest World Youth Day participants, Santibañez’s 9-month-old daughter, Lexi, was among the youngest. Santibañez’s wife, Angelica, accompanied him on both trips.  

Jorge and Angelica Santibanez pose with their daughter, Lexi, 9 months, with whom they traveled to World Youth Day in Panama.

Photographer: COURTESY

Jorge and Angelica Santibanez pose with their daughter, Lexi, 9 months, with whom they traveled to World Youth Day in Panama.

Amanda Merino, 18, poses with her mother, Miriam, and sister, Alessandra, 13 at World Youth Day in Panama. Amanda canceled her trip to World Youth Day in Krakow because of her father's illness. “It was awesome because we were there together as a family unit and we knew it was what my dad would have wanted,” Merino said of World Youth Day Panama. “If he had been alive, he probably would have been there too.”

Photographer: COURTESY

Amanda Merino, 18, poses with her mother, Miriam, and sister, Alessandra, 13 at World Youth Day in Panama. Amanda canceled her trip to World Youth Day in Krakow because of her father's illness. “It was awesome because we were there together as a family unit and we knew it was what my dad would have wanted,” Merino said of World Youth Day Panama. “If he had been alive, he probably would have been there too.”

In Krakow, “Angie and I were still in the middle of the struggle to get pregnant,” he recalled. “Our prayer at that point just became, help us to understand.”

Shortly after they returned, they felt as if their prayers had been answered. Angie was pregnant with twins. But Lucas and Catalina were born 23 weeks into the pregnancy, and did not survive. “After four years trying to start a family and then to lose it, it was just basically life-shattering,” Jorge Santibañez said.

They had already started planning to go to Panama when they found out Lexi was on the way. That’s why they had to take her, he said. “She’s very much a fruit of World Youth Days and the sacrifices and the prayers that we offered during our time in Poland.”

Another member of the Little Flower group, Amanda Merino, was all ready for Poland when, a week before the trip, the family found out that her father was terminally ill. She canceled.

“I knew that I had to be there by his side,” said Merino, now 18 and a marketing major at Florida International University. Her father died about a month-and-a-half after World Youth Day Krakow. She remembers telling her mom that she would be “the first pilgrim signed up” for the next World Youth Day. Her mom agreed, adding, “We’ll even go as a family.”

And so Merino, her mom, Miriam, and her 13-year-old sister, Alessandra, found themselves walking “up and down and up and down” through the streets of Panama City with their fellow Little Flower parishioners. 

“It was awesome because we were there together as a family unit and we knew it was what my dad would have wanted,” Merino said. “If he had been alive, he probably would have been there too.”

World Youth Day is “a perfect example of how the world should be,” she said. “It ignites that fire back into your soul to be proud to be Catholic. It shows you why you’re Catholic.”

 

PRIESTS AND BISHOPS

Panama was the first experience of World Youth Day for Father Elvis Gonzalez, archdiocesan director of vocations. But it won’t be his last. “I posted on Facebook as soon as they announced it was going to be Portugal,” he said.

Archdiocesan priests pose for a photo before concelebrating the final Mass of World Youth Day in Panama with Pope Francis. From left: Father Elvis Gonzalez, vocations director; Father Jose Alfaro, pastor of Blessed Trinity, Miami Springs; Father James McCreanor, retired pastor of Sacred Heart in Homestead; Father Bryan Garcia, administrator of St. Bernadette in Hollywood; and Jesuit Father Christian Saenz, who accompanied a group of students from Belen Jesuit Prep in Miami.

Photographer: COURTESY

Archdiocesan priests pose for a photo before concelebrating the final Mass of World Youth Day in Panama with Pope Francis. From left: Father Elvis Gonzalez, vocations director; Father Jose Alfaro, pastor of Blessed Trinity, Miami Springs; Father James McCreanor, retired pastor of Sacred Heart in Homestead; Father Bryan Garcia, administrator of St. Bernadette in Hollywood; and Jesuit Father Christian Saenz, who accompanied a group of students from Belen Jesuit Prep in Miami.

In Panama, he experienced World Youth Day from differing perspectives. The first few days he spent with the archdiocesan pilgrims – a group of 135 organized by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry that included the Little Flower contingent as well as youths and young adults from St. Katharine Drexel in Weston, St. Joseph in Miami Beach, Sacred Heart and St. Ann in Homestead, Blessed Trinity in Miami Springs and Msgr. Edward Pace and Belen Jesuit schools in Miami.

The latter half of the trip he spent with Miami’s bishops: Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Auxiliary Bishops Peter Baldacchino and Enrique Delgado. “It was so amazing to see the bishops, too, so enthusiastic with the youths. It was a more personal level, more human,” Father Gonzalez said.

On the last day, as he concelebrated the closing Mass with hundreds of priests, bishops and the pope, he remembers looking back and seeing “just an ocean of people.”

That made him realize that “the goal of the World Youth Day is not only to be gathered and to meet the pope, but to find the Lord,” he said. The young people “are looking for the Lord.”

 

MAKING GOD RELEVANT

By far the largest group from the archdiocese consisted of 30 teens and young adults from Blessed Trinity Parish, led by their pastor, Father José Alfaro. He had attended his first World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, as a seminarian. He said he embarked on the trip to Panama because he wanted to “enliven” the LifeTeen group that had just started at the parish. “I knew that if I went more young people would go.”

That’s very important, he said, because for many teens and young adults, “God has become irrelevant and the Church has become irrelevant.”

“We had some who came to World Youth Day that were not practicing and they had a wonderful experience. And that’s who we need to reach out to,” Father Alfaro said. Traveling together also creates a special bond.

“It also allows the youths to see you in a different light, in a human light,” he said, and that bond “enriches me too. I spent hours talking to them, whether we were walking or just waiting. You’re traveling together so you become like family for a few days.”

The experience “confirmed in my heart” the need for another pilgrimage, this time with young adults. Though it might sound a bit “crazy,” he said, he would like to walk with them the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. “Because I think they need us the most.”

Miami's 135 World Youth Day pilgrims pose for a photo at the Santuario Nacional Corazon de Maria after celebrating Mass with Florida's bishops before embarking on the 10-mile trek to the site of the overnight vigil and final Sunday Mass with Pope Francis.

Photographer: COURTESY

Miami's 135 World Youth Day pilgrims pose for a photo at the Santuario Nacional Corazon de Maria after celebrating Mass with Florida's bishops before embarking on the 10-mile trek to the site of the overnight vigil and final Sunday Mass with Pope Francis.


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