In the forefront, from left to right, Benjamin Gagliardi, Anastasia Konopacki and Samuel Gagliardi pray with young people at the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Anastasia Konopacki, 21, described her experience attending World Youth Day in Panama in January as “unique and moving.”

The UW-Madison student was accompanied by her fiancé, Samuel Gagliardi, 24, who graduated from the same university and now works as an engineer. They made the pilgrimage with Gagliardi’s brother, Benjamin, a sophomore at Hudson High School, and his mother, Barbara Gagliardi.

The Gagliardis are parishioners of St. Patrick Catholic Community, Hudson. According to Konopacki, her future parents-in-law have “generously made it a point to make sure that all of their children experience a World Youth Day.”

World Youth Days were started by St. Pope John Paul II in 1986, with the first official gathering attended by approximately 300,000 in Rome. Since the first international World Youth Day in Argentina in 1987, the event has taken place every two to three years; host sites have moved around the continents, with attendance averaging upwards of 1.6 million.

Konopacki felt the culture in Panama was “rich with enthusiasm, bright fruits and friendly locals.” She said getting around was sometimes a challenge – minimal directions and inaccessible bathrooms – but she saw it all as “part of the pilgrimage experience.”

The pilgrims slept on the hard ground next to Columbians, Germans, Chileans and Canadians, explored the rainforest and shared the days with youth from all corners of the world.

“She (Barbara) is an adventurous woman, and arguably handled that and other uncomfortable situations way better than us Millennials,” Konopacki said.

Barbara Gagliardi’s first World Youth Day was in 2002, when she took daughters Martha and Susan to Toronto. She wanted her daughters to “be in the presence of other people who loved Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church, from the ground up.”

The 2002 gathering was St. John Paul II’s last. Gagliardi was surprised by the effect the Holy Father had on them all, and said, “One cannot be in the presence of a saint and not be affected.”

A lifelong Catholic, Barbara Gagliardi called her World Youth Day “immersions” a unique experience. The gatherings showcase in flying colors, literally among the dozens of represented countries’ flags, what no other organization on earth can compare with: the universality of the Catholic Church.

For 17-year-old Benjamin Gagliardi, it was a “thrilling experience … though at first – in classic high school fashion – I was reluctant to let myself enjoy the events.” A speech by the American Bishop Robert Barron moved him in particular, at which point he was able to immerse himself “in the gift of the World Youth Day experience.”

Konopacki said, “Experiencing the poverty of Panama alongside 500,000 other young Catholics was humbling, and reminded us of Christ’s humility as He entered this world.”

The theme for each World Youth Day is taken from Scripture. For Panama 2019, it was from Luke 1:38: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

In a video message for the 2019 World Youth Day, Pope Francis said to young people, “God is also watching over you and calling you, and when God does so, he is looking at all the love you are able to offer… you can improve the world and leave an imprint that makes a mark on history – your history and that of many others.”

During the final Mass Jan. 27, the pope encouraged the belief in God’s concreteness and closeness in his homily. He said people often prefer a distant God, a God who does not inconvenience them. He warned them of not seeing their youth as “a kind of waiting room, where we sit around until we are called.” He spoke of the richness of intergenerational dialogue.

“You, dear young people,” Pope Francis said, “are not the future, but the now of God … For Jesus, there is no ‘meantime,’ but only a merciful love that wants to enter into and win over our hearts… He is concrete, close, real love.”

Referring to Mary at the Annunciation, the pope concluded, “Throughout these days, Mary’s fiat has been whispering like a kind of music in the background. She not only believed in God and in his promises as something possible, she believed God himself and dared to say ‘yes’ to taking part in this now of the Lord. She felt she had a mission; she fell in love, and that decided everything.”

Seeing the pope in person made an impression on Benjamin Gagliardi. He left feeling inspired by how much Pope Francis cares about Catholic youth.

For Konopacki, her time in Panama was a week to understand and put into practice the Virgin Mary’s words and actions, “let it be done unto me according to thy word.”