Local Chinese Catholics welcome WYD pilgrims in Panama

Immigrants discuss over dim sum the challenges they face in evangelizing young people in Central American nation
Local Chinese Catholics welcome WYD pilgrims in Panama

Pilgrims from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau take a group photo in Panama City during World Youth Day 2019 on Feb. 27. (Photo by Anthony Law/ucanews.com)

ucanews.com reporter, Panama City
February 1, 2019
The Chinese Catholic community in Panama City received Chinese pilgrims during the Jan. 22-27 World Youth Day (WYD) events and shared their experiences of evangelizing as more people turn to Protestant churches.

On Jan. 26, the Chinese Catholic Foundation of Panama invited Taiwanese Bishop Thomas Chung An-zu of Chiayi, to celebrate Mass. He was in the country delivering catechisms to Chinese-speaking pilgrims as part of the WYD's calendar of programs.

Referring to a passage taken from the Gospel of St. Luke, Bishop Chung asked attendees to remember to bless the houses of their host families.

They shared a dim sum meal and then the pilgrims set off to attend a countryside vigil and WYD-ending Mass featuring a special appearance by Pope Francis on Jan. 27.

The Chinese pilgrims who attended the Mass at St. Martha's Church included young people from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well as the Chinese mainland. The church is close to the city's Chinatown.

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There were also ethnic Chinese from Australia, Malaysia, and the United States, as well as two Chinese volunteers.

Megan Chen, who was born to Chinese parents in Panama and can speak some Cantonese, said she was initially confused at hearing her peers singing hymns in Mandarin.

She said the local community of ethnic Chinese celebrates Mass twice a week, but the services are mostly in Spanish. Only some parts are read in other languages, for example, the liturgy is conducted in Cantonese, and psalm and other readings are delivered in Mandarin.

Chen said the Gospel is usually read by a priest from the Chinese mainland while the homily is in Mandarin and Spanish. 

The 20-year-old described enjoying a Mass in her native tongue attended by around 400 pilgrims and their host families as a rare joy. She was used to services with only a quarter or an eighth as many people, she said.

Chen said she was inspired by their presence to continue her evangelization efforts in this Catholic-majority Central American nation of 4 million people, an estimated 70 percent of who identify with the Catholic faith.

She said many of her Mandarin-speaking Chinese friends in Panama had been put off by the lack of availability of services in a language they felt most comfortable with.

As a result, they had ended up drifting to other Christian churches with Mandarin-speaking pastors who could more easily teach them the Bible and explain its intricacies.

Like many young people around the world, her friends were also "attracted to the energy and music" and general vibrancy of the kind of services held at Protestant churches, Chen added.

To bring the Gospel to Chinese residing in Panama, Johnny Wong, president of the Catholic foundation, told ucanews.com in English that an hour-long, weekly radio program has been launched with a local station, Radio Maria. The station enjoys huge popularity in Latin America.

Called Jesús Habla Chino (Jesus speaks Chinese), this sees members discuss their religious faith and personal experiences in Cantonese.

Wong said language classes were another strategy to attract Chinese people to learn about the Catholic faith using biblical texts as teaching materials.

He said he hopes to run regular Spanish classes for Chinese children, and Chinese classes for Chinese descendants up to their fifth generation here.

The foundation has already requested its local archdiocese grant it a permanent place to minister to Chinese people, Wong added. 

Given the fresh connections established during WYD, Wong came up with an idea of inviting a Cantonese-speaking priest from Hong Kong to assist in ministering to the Chinese pilgrims who were only there for a few days.

The parish priest, who asked not to be named, drove nearly two hours from his home in another part of Panama to deliver two Masses a week. 

Rosa Lili Young, one of the catechists, said the mission of the foundation was to "help people with no religion to know Jesus Christ."

Speaking in both Spanish and English, she said that while most immigrants clung tightly to their Chinese culture, few of the younger generation were fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese.

She said that a privately-run Chinese school in Panama City had now started to allow the foundation to provide faith formation for their mostly Chinese-Panamanian, Cantonese-speaking students.

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