Catholic Voices - Losing myself, finding God

Photo: Sarah Pham Photo: Sarah Pham

What I discovered at World Youth Day Panama

Like many high schoolers, I felt my faith and self-esteem gradually slipping through my fingertips over the past few years. I thought traveling to Panama in January for World Youth Day would help me “find myself” or somehow rediscover my faith. Neither of those things happened. Instead, I found something better. I simply found … God.

Sarah PhamSarah Pham

I saw God in the young people who still had hope in the world, who looked me in the eye and smiled as I passed them on the street; in priests who told me they believed in miracles; in the people of Panama who embraced us as family. Instead of finding myself, I lost myself — in the beautiful chaos of the crowds, the chanting in the streets, the walking from church to church, the adoration and contemplative reflections.

At World Youth Day, hope was present in a way I’d never before experienced. This hope was tangible. It was powerful and surrounded me in all directions. See, “God doesn’t come into your life to make it better,” someone told me. “He makes your life bigger.”

The theme of WYD this year was “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Meeting so many Catholic youths who were willing to say “Yes” to God taught me a lot about bravery. At WYD, we learned how to celebrate hope and change in the face of fear. In a world where people are forgotten, where distress, loneliness and failure can seem overwhelming, we believe in grace and hope. We young people will not wait until tomorrow to change the world. We will begin today to live lives that embody the kind of love it takes to love an unlovable world. We will not focus on all the things that are wrong with the world or with ourselves, because united in faith, we can change our world together and for the better. 

At WYD, I witnessed something extraordinary: hundreds of thousands of young people choosing courage over fear, choosing miracles in place of doubts, choosing to heal and to transform. We began to acknowledge our ability to love, to be loved, and to use that love to be for the world everything that we wanted to do for the world. There in the heart of Panama, we promised to be brave and say “Yes” to God, as Mary did. By accepting our fears, failures and doubts, we connected ourselves to this greater purpose and to God. In doing so, we experienced the healing freedom of divine peace and love.

On the last night, over 700,000 youths stayed up late praying, dancing and singing. There’s a WYD tradition where an ongoing circle dances to a certain beat with everyone in rhythm together. You can stay or leave whenever you like but that circle remains, just as a strong community does. I felt at home dancing next to people from all over the world: Argentina, New Jersey, China, California, Vietnam, Poland, Panama. What was beautiful was that it didn’t matter what country I came from or what language I spoke. They saw through all that and saw me — my soul and my smile. And I saw them. We saw each other for who we truly were, not who society told us we were.

I learned a lot about the power of being during WYD Panama. Life is not about doing more or even being “more.” It is about believing courageously — in yourself, in others and in God — and simply being in life who you were intended to be, no matter what anybody else says.

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Northwest Catholic - May 2019