PANAMA CITY — Pope Francis urged young people to seize the day and make their dreams a reality now as he celebrated a final World Youth Day Mass on Sunday before an estimated 700,000 people and presidents from across Central America.
At the end of the service, the Vatican announced the next edition would be in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022.
“You dear people are not the future but the now of God,” Francis told the pilgrims draped in flags from across the Americas.
The Vatican said the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Portugal were on hand for the Mass, as well as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who camped out on a field following a vigil service Saturday night.
“Our trip was very long but it was worth it because we came here to Panama City because of our faith, our Christian faith,” said pilgrim Sawadogo Kiswensidad, who travelled from Burkina Faso.
After Mass, Francis was heading to a church-run home for people infected with HIV, a visit that is likely to send a strong message in Panama, where AIDS carries a stigma.
“Many of the people we help here have been rejected by their families, by people in the street,” said the Rev. Domingo Escobar, director of the Casa Hogar El Buen Samaritano. “But here they receive Christian help, as the church wants.”
Francis then meets with Youth Day volunteers before heading back to Rome.
On Saturday, Francis lunched with some of the pilgrims in an encounter the Vatican described as familiar and festive. The young people said they were surprised at Francis’ informality and interest in their questions.
Brenda Noriega, a Mexican-born youth minister from San Bernardino, California, said she told Francis that the sex abuse scandal in the United States was a “crisis right now we cannot avoid talking about.” She said Francis called abuse a “horrible crime” and assured her that the church was committed to supporting victims.
She said Francis also stressed the need for prayer, noting that he sent U.S. bishops on a retreat with his own preacher earlier this month ahead of his big summit on abuse prevention in February at the Vatican.
“For me as a youth minister, that means a lot,” Noriega told reporters after the luncheon. “Youth ministers, we have been with people who have been angry but sometimes we forget about prayer. We react too easy and too fast. So I think what His Holiness is telling us and the church is to first pray, build community and not forget about accompaniment.”
It was the first time the abuse scandal has come up publicly during Francis’ four-day visit to Panama. The crisis hasn’t erupted publicly in Central America in the same way it has in the U.S., where the Catholic hierarchy is facing a crisis in confidence over its decades-long failures to protect young people from priests who rape and molest children.
AP producer Trisha Thomas contributed.