Since July, teenagers and young adults from Misión San Andrés have been spending every Sunday selling religious items, T-shirts and raffle tickets after Mass and hosting monthly food sales in order to raise funds for their trip to World Youth Day in Panama. The group has raised $43,000, which is enough to cover the trip for all 25 participants.

Misión San Andrés, located at the Catholic Charities Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a mission of St. Andrew Apostle Parish that serves the large Hispanic population in that area. The group of youth and young adults from the mission will be traveling with Father Mario Majano, St. Andrew’s parochial vicar, to Panama City to join thousands of other people from all over the world Jan. 22-27.

The youth at Misión San Andrés have been selling religious items and lottery tickets every Sunday since July to raise funds for their trip to Panama for World Youth Day. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

For 17-year-old Lucy Luna, it will be her first time traveling on a plane.

“It is mind blowing how it is going to be people from all over the world, and you all share a common faith,” said Luna.

Her brother, Fermin Luna, will be traveling with her, and said he is looking forward to seeing “how other countries and other cultures celebrate their faith.”

Many of these pilgrims’ families are from Central American countries, and since the group is bilingual, they are planning to switch off between attending the English and Spanish catechesis sites at World Youth Day.

“I have never been on a really big religious pilgrimage to another foreign country, and I am really excited to go and experience it for myself and to meet other people who have the same faith as me,” said 14-year-old Jesús Quintana. “I think it will be cool to be all gathered in one country celebrating our faith.”

Monica Ulloa, who is helping plan the trip and coordinate the fundraising, said it is important to her to help these teenagers go because attending the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 had a big impact on her life. Now 26, she will be staying behind with her one-year-old daughter, but her husband, Milton, will be leading the group in Panama.

The 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was the first with Pope Francis, and Ulloa said, “Hearing Pope Francis speak in Spanish touched deep in my soul.” She was particularly struck by the pope’s message that “we need youth who are protagonists.”

This year, Ulloa said she hopes the youth leave Panama after World Youth Day “knowing that the Church has their back, and that they are not alone.”

She noted that many of the people in the group are from single mother households and may not have had the opportunity to do something like this without the fundraising. But because the trip is so important to the Ulloas, Father Majano, the youth and their moms, they are all there every weekend working together to make it affordable.

“This is the first opportunity for a lot of these kids to even consider this,” said Father Majano.

Volunteers sell food after a Sunday Mass at Misión San Andrés on Dec. 16. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

He noted that World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 “was a jumpstart for myself when I was a teen” and said he is excited, “to see what this will do in some of their lives.” This year will be his first time back to World Youth Day and his first time going as a priest.

“I remember fondly going with our priest, and I am looking forward to being a pastor in that sense; a pastor on a mission,” he said.

Tania Revelo, who is 20, went to Panama about a year ago for a mission trip. Her group went to different houses and told the people they met about God and His love, and then invited them to Mass with them at the end of the week. While she was there, she was struck by the hospitality of the Panamanian people, who always welcomed them into their homes and gave them food and drink, she said.

“I was able to experience the energy and just the way they are not afraid to praise the Lord, especially the youth in Panama,” she said.

Revelo had the opportunity to witness what she described as a mini-World Youth Day, with 10,000 Panamanian youth. She said it was like a big concert, “but the artist is Jesus and Mary and Joseph.”

“I never had experienced something that immense,” she said. “I could feel God’s love everywhere.”

Tania Revelo sells religious artifacts to fundraise for the Misión San Andrés group to go to World Youth Day. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

While they were there, everyone in her group felt that they needed to bring that energy back to their parish. After she returned, she decided she not only wanted to bring that energy back to her parish; she wanted to bring the youth of the parish to the place where she experienced that energy. She told Father Majano and the Ulloas that they needed to get a group together for World Youth Day – which they had already been thinking about – and they got serious about doing so.

“I just want to be able to experience an encounter with God and make sure everyone comes back differently…everyone comes back with that power to bring our community together, to bring the youth together, and to show the world that the Church is thriving – it is young and it is alive, it is not dead. It is not boring. It is not just tradition,” said Revelo. “There [are] many different ways we can praise the Lord, and I think we just have to experience it, and we should bring a little bit back to this community.”

Revelo said she felt this trip would have a long lasting impact on the entire community, because the young people would come back rejuvenated and ready to share their experience.

“We are young, we should be able to use that energy and show that God is working through us,” she said.