Cuba will participate with the largest delegation in its history at the next World Youth Day (WYD), Panama 2019. The long-awaited event that will take place on the coastal belt of the Isthmaan country will host 471 young Catholics from the greatest of the Antilles.1 An unprecedented experience that has filled with enthusiasm the hearts of those who live the faith and commitment to the Church on the Island.
Most of the young people who will be in central American territory between January 22 and 27 did not imagine living the thirty-fourth World Youth Day presided over by Pope Francis. A year ago, when the WYD Cross and the icon of the Virgin Mary with the Child, pilgrim signs,2 visited our homeland, for many it was only a dream to attend and receive the message of love and hope emanating from the world meeting of Catholic youth, as well as to see a nation and reality different from those that have touched them to live.
Thanks to the government of the Central American country, so many friends from Cuba, priests, bishops and the great efforts of Cuban families, hundreds of young people will be able to contrast their experience of faith with concrete faces from other latitudes and different cultures. But what are World Youth Days? What’s their story and how did they come about? How has Cuba’s participation in these appointments been?
World Youth Day (WYD)
WYD is a meeting of young Catholics held annually in all dioceses of the world on Palm Sunday. Every two or three years, at the pope’s invitation, the event takes on an international character and united the Catholic youth of the world in a host city.
This week-long meeting, where the main ceremony is always presided over by the Pope, is usually associated with the name world youth day. During its development, the Pope, cardinals and bishops explain the Catechism and transfer the Gospel to young people.
The historical antecedent of this great event is the international meeting of young people that took place in Rome during the Holy Week of the Jubilee or Holy Year of 1975. Paul VI was then the Pope. During the closing of the First International March of Christian Reconciliation, thousands of young people from different countries were present on the road of St Francis, from Asses to Rome. This envisioned the need for Catholic youth to share dreams and experiences of faith.
Later, as part of the Jubilee activities of 1983-1984, St John Paul II wanted to set up a youth meeting for the Palm Sunday vigil in Rome. The organizers anticipated about sixty thousand participants, however, more than two hundred and fifty thousand arrived. Thanks to six thousand Roman families who housed the pilgrims, young people from all over the world were able to live the International Jubilee of Youth.
At the close of the same year, called the Holy Year of Redemption to commemorate the thousand and fiftyth anniversary of the Passion of Jesus Christ, St John Paul II gave the young people of the world a wooden cross, and said to them, “Dear young people, as the Holy Year closed, I entrust to you the sign of this Jubilee Year: the Cross of Christ! Take her around the world as a sign of the Lord Jesus’ love for humanity and announce to all that only in the dead and risen Christ is there salvation and redemption.”3 This was the beginning of world youth days.
But while Pope John Paul II was the architect of the initiative, the Argentine cardinal, Eduardo Pironio, who days before Palm Sunday 1984 had been appointed president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and had made the proposal to institute WYD, was its co-founder. Pironio took responsibility for the opening days and became one of his main inspirations. He accompanied St. John Paul II to the editions organized in Rome, Buenos Aires (1987), Santiago de Compostela (1989), Czestochowa (1991), Denver (1993) and Manila (1995).
Although Cuban bishops received the Pope’s invitation for young Catholics from the island to participate in the 1984 day, the reality of Cuba made assistance impossible. Despite our Church’s desire to be represented in Rome, inconveniences related to the country’s exit permits, the recent events of the Mariel and economic problems nullify any possibility.
In Next Year’s Holy Week, the Church again summoned young Catholics to join palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square and three hundred thousand young people from the world were able to attend.
The strength of these meetings led, at the end of 1985, the Pope would officially establish World Youth Day, which would be held every year in the dioceses of the world. The date for its celebration would be Palm Sunday. Faced with the question of why this day was chosen, the Pope stated: “An answer like this is given by all of you, who for years have been pilgrims to Rome precisely to celebrate this day […] With this fact, do you not want to make you see for yourself that you seek Christ at the center of his mystery? You seek Him in the fulness of that truth that He himself is in the history of man.”4
Cuba was unable to participate in this Day, nor in the next day. But to be in tune with the young people of the world, on the island was created what is now known as Easter, which was not celebrated on Palm Sunday, but in the second or third week of Easter. It was first held in Havana and then in all the dioceses of the country.
Palm Sunday 1986, under the slogan “So that you may realize the hope that is in you” (1P 3:15) and the hymn “Stay with us”, the first World Youth Day was celebrated. On that occasion, the Pope invited young people from all over the world through a letter entitled “Always ready to bear witness to the hope that is in you”, while granting the seat of the next WYD to the city of Buenos Aires.
While many consider WYD to be the most beautiful invention of Pope John Paul II, he was committed to stating that “it is the young people themselves who have invented WYD.”5
Cubans at WYD
The city of Buenos Aires begins the WYD pilgrimage around the world. The Argentine meeting had as its motto “We have known and believed in god’s love for us” (1Jn 4:16) and the hymn “A New Sun”. The event was attended by one million young people, which was a sign of hope and support for a country that was coming out of a dictatorship.
Cuba participates for the first time in a WYD with a delegation composed of four people: Msgr. Héctor Peña Gómez, Bishop of the Diocese of Holguin and President of the Youth Commission of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba; Father Carlos Jesús Patricio Baladrón Valdés, national adviser to the young and two lay people, one from Holguin and one from Camaguey, both young.
In the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela would be held the Day of 1989, which was presided over by the motto “I am the Way, Truth and Life” (Jn 14:6) and the hymn “We are the young people of 2000”.
Considered a sanctuary of faith, Santiago de Compostela attracted a huge pilgrimage of young people from all over the world. The programme of the European meeting had three moments: catechesis, prayer vigil and eucharist with the Pope. From then on, WYD spread with three days of catechesis before the final celebration. The Cuban delegation was expanded. Archbishop Peña and Father Baladrón were joined by the Habanero father Ramón Suárez Polcari and one young man by diocese.
The next headquarters would be Czstochowa, in 1991. This Day had as its motto “You have received a spirit of adoptive children” (Rom 8:15). The chosen hymn was “Abba Father”.
A million six hundred thousand young people attended the Czéstochowa, two Cubans among them. For the first time, the Day takes place in a Sanctuary of the Virgin, the site of abundant pilgrimages, and in a country in Eastern Europe. This meeting went down in history as the first to gather the young people of the former hostile blocs after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The novelty of this edition was the establishment of the viacrucis celebration.
The city of Denver, in the United States, hosted the 1993 Day; it was inspired by the motto “I came to give life in abundance” (Jn 10:10) and the hymn “We are one body”.
From Cuba they were able to attend, not without tripping and difficulties Msgr. Carlos J. P. Baladrón, Father Ramón Suárez Polcari and two young people. In Denver 1993, representations of viacrucis vi-viente began that will take place in all WYDs ever since. The event in the United States was the first pilgrimage to a modern metro-poly.
World Youth Days also arrived in Asia. In 1995, the next edition was held in Manila, Philippines. The motto of this day was “As the Father sent me, I sent you” (Jn 20:21) and the hymn “Tell the world of his love”. This event was attended by more than five million young people, including three Cubans. The difficulties of leaving the country, in addition to how costly the visa and accreditation process was, put brakes on illusions and desires. Despite the few resources available, this Day became one of humanity’s most crowded encounters.
Paris was the host city of the 1997 edition that led as the motto “Master, where do you live? Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). His hymn was “Master and Lord, come with us.”
WyD in Paris resulted in a new “French revolution”. It brought together one million and two hundred thousand young people, who flooded the streets and squares and showed a surprising spiritual thirst and longing for truth. This day had great significance for the Cubans who participated, a total of twelve young people, a bishop and the advisory father. The gift to the delegation of Cuba came during the vigil. At the ceremony, the Pontiff baptized ten pilgrims from five continents, including a Cuban.
The uniqueness of this WYD was the initiative to put to the event a moment of prayer and dialogue of young people from all over the world in the French dioceses.
With the return to Rome of the Day in 2000, Cuba lives a great joy. Driven by the motto “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) and singing the hymn “Emmanuel”, sixty Cubans6 can be in WYD, attended by three million young people.
Never in the history of the conferences has our Church been able to send a delegation of such magnitude. The event took place during the Jubilee and was especially emotional and impressive. The island delegation had six advisors and Cardinal Jaime Ortega was invited to give catechesis.
Despite the great warmth and influx of young people older than expected, the organization proved efficient and the composure of young people unbeatable. There were several workshops to unite faith with youthful life. The appointment culminated in a vigil on the esplanade of Tor Vergata and a mass the next morning. For the Cubans who attended it was an unforgettable experience. Everyone felt a desire to meet, to share their experiences, to hear words of faith, to look together to the future, and to renew their own commitment to God. Despite the advanced illness of the “Pope of the Youth”, as st. John Paul II was nicknamed, he joyfully shared the extraordinary encounter with the millions of participants, who he invited to be “morning sentinels.”7
The Canadian city Toronto hosted the 2002 event, an encounter led by the slogan “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14) and the hymn “Light of the World”.
This day featured the second largest delegation of Cubans (if we take into account the one expected in Panama 2019). Eight hundred thousand young people from the world attended, two hundred of whom were from Cuba. They were accompanied by four bishops and several advisers. As a relevant note it is worth noting the presence for ten months in Toronto of the young man of Ciego de Avila, Roberto Pérez, who participated in the preparatory committee of the Day.
This was the last WYD Karol Woytila attended. Here was born the concrete initiative of volunteering. On this occasion the young people were encouraged to bear witness and proclaim Christ in a modern and multicultural world.
In Cologne came the Day of 2015 under the motto “He-mos come to worship him” (Mt 2:2); and the hymn, “Venimus adorare eum”.
St. John Paul II chose the German city of Cologne and Benedict XVI starred in the event. Many feared that the Pope-elect would not be as close to young people as his predecessor. The trip to Cologne proved quite the opposite. Two million young people from two hundred nations came to meet a different but not distant pope. Cuba participated with forty-five delegates and Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The motto of this quotation corresponds to the words attributed to the Magi, whose relics are guarded in the cathedral of the city of Cologne.
The next stop was Sidney 2008. The motto of the day was “You will receive the strength of the Holy Spirit, who will come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) and his hymn “You will receive strength”.
This was the second time the German pope met young people in a WYD. To the surprise of those present, Benedict XVI entered the city bay by boat accompanied by young people from all over the world. About one million young people came to this country, of them only a Cuban. The distance and high prices of the flights made the Church’s attempts on the island fruitless. The reception and development of the event was spectacular, although only twenty percent of the Australian population is Catholic. Significant was the media cover, which included everything from text messages from Pope Benedict XVI himself for the inscribed, to the opening of a new social network called Xt3. Equally impressive was the Viacrucis that took the city itself, including the bay, on stage.
Madrid was designated to host the 2011 Day. His motto was “Rooted and built in Christ, firm in faith” (cf. Col 2:7); his hymn, “Firm in the Faith.” In this way Spain became the first country to host two WYDs and its archbishop, Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela, the first to take care of its organization twice.
About two million young people arrived in the beautiful city of Madrid, sixty-six Cubans among them, who with great encouragement and enthusiasm shared every day.
The Day returns to Latin America in 2013. This time, Rio de Janeiro is the host city. The meeting in Brazil bears the motto “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19) and his hymn, “Hope of Dawn”.
World Youth Day 2013 held in Rio de Janeiro marked the XXVIII edition of this event. It was a year ahead to prevent it from coinciding with the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which was also held at the South American giant. Valued as “historic” as Pope Francis’ first trip abroad, in the fifth month of his pontificate, the Day welcomed more than three million people. Fifty-five young people attended Cuba, who had the opportunity to live a unique experience of encounter with Christ. The figure of Pope Francis and his closeness made this event an unforgettable experience.
Krakow is once again the venue for the Day in 2016. This time, the chosen motto was “Blessed are the merciful, for they will attain myse-ricordia” (Mt 5:7) and their hymn, “Blessed are the merciful”.
The XXXI edition of the Day returned to Krakow, a land that saw the birth of Pope John Paul II, founder of this event and who by that date had been proclaimed saint of the Church. On this occasion, nearly three million people attended. Cuba did not carry a delegation, although there was a presence of Cubans in the event. Mercy was chosen as a topic of reflection by Pope Francis, who reported that the next appointment would be in Panama in 2019.
“Behold the slave of the Lord, be made in me according to thy Word” (Lk 1:38) is the motto of the next journey; the chosen hymn is undoubtedly a song to Our Lady: “Behold the servant of the Lord, be made in me according to your Word”. For this celebration we expect the presence of three hundred and fifty thousand young people from all over the world, nine hundred bishops, two hundred cardinals and thousands of priests, religious and religious.
Five hundred thousand visitors, four thousand journalists, as well as representatives of governments and heads of state are also expected to arrive, as indicated by the organizers.8 To date more than twenty thousand volunteers are registered. When these lines are written, the meeting is seventy-five days short.
May the joy, hope and illusion of so many young Cubans who will participate serve as a seed of Faith for those who will follow the event on the island after the news.
May our mother, our Virgin of Charity, welcome the intentions and longings of young people and accompany them on their pilgrimage through Panamanian lands. Amen
1 His Excellency Mr. Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama, on his visit to the Archbishopric of Havana for a meeting with young people, granted facilities for more people.
2 The Cross of World Youth Day or Youth Cross is made of wood, has a height of 3.8 m and was given to young people by St John Paul II at the 1984 Day in Rome. In 2003 St John Paul II also gave an image of the Virgin Mary to accompany the Cross on his pilgrimage. In addition to being present at the great meetings, the two symbols previously visit the Catholic dioceses in preparation. For World Youth Day 2019 they made pilgrimages through the countries of the Caribbean and Central America, then returned to their starting point in Panama and be present at the beginning of the Day.
3 Rome, 22 April 1984. Available at http://www.corazonistas.com/documentos/doc_25122010154439.pdf.
4 Homily of March 27, 1988, Mass of Palm Sunday, III World Youth Day. See WYD History on the www.vatican.va.
5 See http://www.laici.va/content/laici/es/sezioni/giovani/storia-delle-gmg.html.
6 According to data from the archive of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba. These figures are approximate, since they always go young in a particular way and not in the official delegation.
7 See http://www.laici.va/content/laici/es/sezioni/giovani/storia-delle-gmg.html.
8 See https://www.efe.com/efe/america/sociedad/la-jornada-mundial-de-juventud-panama-sera-del-22-al-27-enero-2019/20000013-3155028.