The road to Panama

Students at 34 Sydney Catholic schools are preparing to ‘say yes’ to the spiritual adventure of a lifetime.

World Youth Day festivities will all but take over the city of Panama from 22-27 January 2019, celebrating around the theme of Mary’s words in Luke 1:38: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Among the thousands of young Catholics in attendance will be 110 students from Sydney Catholic schools, fresh from one of two pilgrimages to Mexico or Washington DC.

Though their trip will take in historic sites including the White House, Aztec pyramids and the Smithsonian, students who spoke to About were most excited about opportunities to celebrate their faith with people from all over the world.

“I’m looking forward to experiencing [how] people act regarding their faith, and seeing how it’s different to Australia,” said Year 10 Holy Cross Catholic College Ryde student Christopher Picollo. “Looking at the different churches, how they’re built, how prominent they are and just seeing how I can ignite my own faith in a different way,” he said.

“And being able to celebrate Mass with the Pope” added Year 10 Mt St Joseph Catholic College Milperra student Mikaela Jago, “I just feel like that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The students’ attitude is a welcome one for Sydney Catholic Schools’ staff. Many will celebrate their fourth or more Mass with the Pope in Panama, and they stress that while World Youth Day is a fantastic cultural experience, it’s different from a regular vacation.

Michael Neylan, Leader of Learning: Youth Ministry, Inner Western Region Office and pilgrimage organiser, said it can be helpful to think of a pilgrimage as a journey with a purpose, rather than a holiday. He said pilgrims should aim to “say yes” to every cultural and religious experience, both good and challenging, in the same way Mary said yes to bearing the son of God.

I’m really looking forward to being surrounded by people  who are all there for the same reasons

– Mikaela Jago

“We go on pilgrimage to visit the holy sacred places, but with an openness to change within our life,” he said.

“While we often go to places that are touristy as well, we go with a different focus. An interior focus as well as the exterior.”

World Youth Day veterans all said that unlike a regular getaway, the experience often requires pilgrims to lean into discomfort.

Long, hot treks to points of meeting, and the night spent sleeping out ahead of the final Mass may not feel enjoyable in the moment. But they invite pilgrims to develop inner strength, to lean on God and each other, and often end up as some of the fondest memories they bring home.

“We did a 20km walk in Poland, in the heat,” said Monica Ribiero, a teacher at St Clare’s College Waverley. “But you’re experiencing it as a community and it’s sort of like in the olden days. You make a lot of sacrifices, but there’s a bigger and better reward at the end.”

Ms Ribiero and Mr Neylan both encourage pilgrims to come to the event with open hearts, ready to be challenged by the teaching of church leaders, willing to have faith in tough times, and ready to celebrate with other pilgrims.

“The cities often come alive, and you’ll have people singing and dancing, and connecting with people from all over the world,” said Mr Neylan.

“Students will have a lot of times when they are really joyful. They’ll be on this high and then there’ll be times where there’s a low when the hardships come along,” Ms Ribiero said. “Just be open to it.”

Pilgrim’s plans


Students will attend one of two pilgrimages.

The Mexico pilgrimage includes a whole day at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where an apparition of Our Lady miraculously appeared almost 500 years ago. Students will also visit the Church of Our Lady of Remedies in Cholula and the Puebla Cathedral in Mexico, and attend Mass at the Church of Santo Domingo. To learn more about Mexico’s culture and Aztec history, students will visit Teotihuacan and the pyramids  of the Sun and Moon.

The Washington DC pilgrimage includes a private Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America. There will be the option to be part of the 46th Annual March for Life, and students will also visit cultural landmarks, including national war memorials, the Smithsonian Museum, the Natural History Museum and the White House.

We go on pilgrimage to visit the holy sacred places, but with an openness to change within our life

– Michael Neylan


22 January: Opening Mass

23 January: Morning catechesis, youth festival and vocations exhibition

24 January: Papal welcome

25 January: Stations of the Cross procession through Panama

26 January: Pilgrimage to the Final Mass

27 January: Final Mass with Pope Francis


Students will attend a two-day retreat at Playa Bonita, where they will have time to reflect on their World Youth Day experience while exploring beautiful local national parks. They will be joined by well-known speaker and musician Steve Angrisano, who will help guide them through the reflective process.

Panama chatter

What’s been your best World Youth Day experience to date?

Jenny Vu, Youth Ministry Coordinator at Marist Sisters College Woolwich

WYDs attended: Sydney 2008, Madrid 2011, Krakow 2016

“Going to the Holy Land before I went to Madrid in 2011. Just going through roads where Jesus was raised and nurtured was an amazing experience. Looking out to the Red Sea was one of my favourite moments.”

Monica Ribiero, Religious Education teacher, History teacher and Youth Ministry Coordinator at St Clare’s College Waverley

WYDs attended: Sydney 2008, Madrid 2011, Krakow 2016

“It’s always the walk or the journey to the final Mass. I remember in Spain it was so hot that the firefighters would come and hose us down. That was a highlight. It’s those little moments as part of this community with people you’ve never met before.”

Craig Beck, History teacher, Geography teacher, Religion teacher and Youth Ministry coordinator at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College Kensington

WYDs attended: Krakow 2016

“The first session where we met the Pope. You’ve got this huge sea of two or three million people with different flags, and it’s just that very universality of our faith and that real community atmosphere. It was really engaging and enlivening and an incredible experience.”

What are you most looking forward to about your first World Youth Day?

Christopher Picollo, Year 10 student at Holy Cross Catholic College Ryde

“I’m really looking forward to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s one thing to have such a monumental structure just to look at, but to see the faith and the culture behind it, and to experience both at one time is just going to be really exciting.”

Mikaela Jago, Year 10 student at Mt St Joseph Catholic College Milperra

I’m really excited to be able to embark on such an experience with really good friends.

I’m really looking forward to being challenged and being surrounded by people who have the same values, who are all there for the same reasons.”

Joseph Salemi, Year 11 student at Patrician Brothers’ Catholic College Fairfield

“Just everything about the experience. I want to explore the spiritual side, and I want to get to know more of that part of myself. I’m [also] really looking forward to Mexico City to experience their culture, the way they run things and their faith.”

Emily D’Silva, Year 11 student at All Saints Catholic College Casula

“The pyramids in Mexico. It’s not a religious thing, but I’m looking forward to the whole experience of seeing something so ancient; the work humans really can do, even when they didn’t have all the equipment we have today. I feel like it’s going to be very interesting.”

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