For World Youth Day, Panama Church wants to reveal country’s true face

“WHEN A FOREIGNER arrives in Panama, he might think he’s in Dubai, but that’s just the façade,” says Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa of Panama City, the capital of one of six countries in Latin America with the widest gap between rich and poor. The local Church intends to tell the world the country’s real story, as the nation of 4 million people—80 percent of whom are Catholic—welcomes Pope Francis to the 34th World Youth Day (Jan. 22-17, 2019).

Aid to the Church in Need is present at World Youth Day 2019 with DOCAT, a booklet that teaches youth about the social teaching of the Church
View of Panama City

“World Youth Day 2019 will be the occasion to discover the true face of our country,” proclaims Archbishop Ulloa. Last November, the Archbishop, a member of the Order of St. Augustine, received a delegation from the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in his Diocese of Panama.

The prelate continues: “Panama has two faces. As of 2015, the richest 10 percent of households had incomes 37 times higher than the poorest 10 percent of households. These figures reveal to us the social injustice and the high degree of inequality suffered by our people,” particular those of Afro descent and other marginalized indigenous groups

The fate of those of Afro descent is very difficult. Their ancestors were African slaves exported to Panama in the 15th and 16th centuries, or people from the Antilles who came to work on the construction of the Panama Canal in the 20th century. Their descendants suffer poverty and marginalization.

In addition, Panama has seven indigenous ethnic groups that represent around 10 percent to 12 percent of the population, or some 500,000 people. A significant part of this indigenous population lives suffers extreme marginalization and social exclusion.

“The health status of these indigenous peoples is precarious—infant mortality is three times higher than for the rest of the population—and they also suffer from low levels of education and schooling. As a result, this indigenous population does not have access to well-paid jobs, as Panamanian society is essentially a service-oriented society,” as the archbishop explains.

“From the outside, visitors see a very proud Panama. They think they are dealing with a Central American Switzerland, but we have to look beyond that: 40 percent of people work in the informal, underground economy. There is a deep Panama that is not reached by development, even as international aid is being reduced because Panama is considered to be a developed country,” says Maribel Jaen, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Panama City Archdiocese.

Bishop Manuel Ochogavia, of the Diocese of Colon-Kuna Yala, points out that regional differences are very important: “The people of Colon, who suffer high unemployment, have a bad reputation, so they hide their origin when looking for work. In some families, they have only one meal a day and there is a lack of access to clean water and medical care. Some communities have only one toilet for 20 families! This population lives in a vicious circle of poverty and neglect that strangles hope.”

The bishops stress that the strength of the Church in Panama is its laity, and the impact of World Youth Day is already being is already felt, as many young people have been involved in the organization of the event.

Says Maribel Jean: “It’s not just the Catholics; there are even non-believing young people who participate! World Youth Day s a blessing for youth ministry, but also a job opportunity for many young people. The challenge will be what comes after. It will be necessary to maintain the dynamism of World Youth Day, to continue the work, because there is a tendency in Panama to rely on the superficial, the emotional, and the sentimental. Hence, the importance of educating the faithful and the young about the social doctrine of the Church,” says Maribel Jaen.

DOCAT, a booklet expounding the social teaching of the Church, will do just that. Aid to the Church in Need is the publisher (through the YOUCAT Foundation) and will distribute almost 35,000 copies at World Youth Day. DOCAT content will also be available through an app, which young people and people of all ages can download for free. About 400,000 youth from around the world are expected to participate in World Youth Day 2019.

—Jacques Berset