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For many, God is most present inside the Church. Ever present in the Tabernacle, the Eucharist. God is present in the people of the church — the clergy, the laity, the parish volunteers. Where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, He is present.  

For others, God is present in creation. The trees, the beaches, the sun, the snow. When you are amongst the creation of the Lord of the Universe, God is all around you.  In truth, there isn’t a place you can go where you won’t find God. But every day, each believer still has the opportunity to discover God anew.

You don’t know where you will discover God. That’s why you look. But when you see Him, you know it, and you want to tell the world about it.

When Tom Turoczi and his fellow travelers from Detroit were in Panama City for World Youth Day 2019, they discovered God’s presence — or God’s presence discovered them — through a chance encounter on a busy Panamanian street.

“We were walking to dinner last night, and a gentleman saw a special shirt we had with the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Gospel, Luke 1:38,” Turoczi said. “He stopped us and asked what this is. And Patrick from our group said it right out, saying this is what the Gospel is and why it’s so important. The man just stood there amazed, he had the biggest smile on his face, full of joy and he told us to enjoy our time in Panama.”

The travelers didn’t know the man. The native didn’t know the visitors. But they both knew Christ, and through Christ, they both knew each other. That chance encounter on the street, that authentic greeting, and proclamation of the Gospel, wasn’t too different from the when the Gospel was first proclaimed.

It was authentic. It was raw. And it sparked joy. That God is love, that Jesus died for our sins, and because that, all of humanity is saved.

For the pilgrims at World Youth Day, the universal truth that God wants to save all of humanity was present. Pilgrims from different countries shared the same faith, prayed the same prayers and had the same devotions. The God who grants mercy to a teenager from Warsaw is the same God who unconditionally loves a young adult from Wyandotte.

But walking the streets of Panama, it was more than a theory. It was incarnational. Pilgrims could see their fellow Christians sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. They felt a sense of fellowship, dancing the night away on the Panamanian shores. And they felt this throughout the entire week, the sense of being there, of being a witness to the encounter. Of seeing people speak different languages and celebrate different devotions, each pilgrim with their own story, their own witness, their own testimony, but all for the same God.

“You see all the people, just people everywhere, seeing all the flags around, and you know the church is worldwide, it’s universal, that you’re not alone,” said Colette Tibai. “You see everyone, just filled with the spirit. And then out of nowhere, the Pope goes by, and everyone starts freaking out. It’s a super surreal feeling. You’re just standing there, thinking, wait, did that just happen? Did the Pope just past right before me? And I’m left standing there, happy and grinning, the leader of the church, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, is just standing there right before me.”

Presence is the most powerful part of the World Youth Day experience. Being there, seeing it for oneself. Sharing one’s stories and standing among thousands of other young Catholics for an experience that is both personal and universal.

When Spencer Geyman signed up to go on the trip, he was told he was about to experience something he never felt before. After walking from church to church, station to station, being embraced in the sheer euphoria that accompanies the global festival, he was taken away by the environment World Youth Day can be, and the type of community the Catholic Church can become.

“The sheer number of people who are here, who are proud of their faith, no one can prepare you for that,” Geyman said. “The height of the trip is being able to share your faith with so many people, people who are so on fire for their faith. You don’t realize how physically or mentally exhausted you are, because everyone is just so happy to be there, so happy to share the faith.”

World Youth Day is more than the talks, the Masses, the catechism, the festival. It is the incarnation. Seeing the church in the streets. Christ in the streets. It’s an opportunity for today’s youth to be in fellowship with others on a global scale, and to come back to be a witness for Christ on their own block. To boldly claim God still dwells among us, and how each believer is called to share their witness in their own unique way. Sparking the joy in the next encounter, the next meeting with God. And to go out and proclaim his word — wherever they may roam.