• Steph Unger

The Gift of Panamazing Grace

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

Apparently it is day 6 of our WYD Pilgrimage but I have to be honest… I have no real idea what day of the week it is or how many days we have been traveling together. It’s like the concept of organising time according to days of the week is simply irrelevant at the moment. Instead, time seems to be organised by encounters, moments of connection and awe, the last two days being no exception.

Yesterday we headed off to Portobelo to dip our toes in the Caribbean Sea and to bear witness to the stories that live on in the “fortaleza”, the fortress that once protected the city from invasion. Our brilliant and passionate guide Theo spoke of the devestating battles that took place at the fortress between the locals, the pirates and the Spanish. I know that there is no way that I am going to be able to do the stories and history of Portobelo justice in this blog, surfice to say I left the fortress feeling a deep sadness for the loss and suffering endured by the community over countless lifetimes.

Though weighted down by it’s history, Portobelo is also a place of incredible hope, freedom and spirit. As legend has it, many centuries ago a slave found a mysterious object (Christ bearing the cross) floating in the water. This statue, having been thrown overboard from a Spanish ship many years before, had turned black from being in the water so long. Seeing their own image reflected in the “Black Christ", the slaves took the appearance of the statue as a sign that Christ had come to set them free. Shortly after the discovering of the Black Christ, an illness that had infected the community also mysteriously disappeared. From then on, the Black Christ became a statue of hope, promise and freedom for all those in Portobelo. Still, to this day, no one ever passes through the town without paying respect to the icon, no matter their religion. We too therefore payed our respects to the stunning icon, though we were incredibly lucky to not only pray by the statue, but to celebrate Mass with the Black Christ right beside us.

As we set up for our daily Mass in the church, it quickly became clear that we would not be celebrating just as a group of 33 pilgrims. Rather, we would be joined by the other pilgrims, locals and visitors who simply happened to be visiting the Black Christ at the same time. And we were right. As soon as we began singing the opening hymn “Here I Am To Worship” we found all those sitting around us joining in. What an incredible reminder that we are one church, one community in Christ! And then there was Alice. Alice is one of our pilgrims from Maryborough who, only days before had lamented that she should have brought her flute on the pilgrimage to help with the music ministry. During our time at the Embera Village she bought a hand made traditional flute from one of the village stalls and spent the afternoon playing around with it and realised that she had enough notes to play a very special song for Mass in Portobelo. So, when it came time for the offertory, the time when we offered our gifts to the altar, Alice offered her gift of music to us all by playing “Amazing Grace” on her Embera flute. Alice didn’t just offer her gift in that moment, she offered the gift that is our group, our pilgrimage up to that point and the gift that is the Embera people. She offered this to Christ at the altar in the front of us, to the Black Christ beside us and to the broader church community that surrounded us. Thank you Alice for this gift of Panamazing grace.

Now, a day later, we are in Panama City and getting ready for tomorrow when World Youth Day will finally begin for real. We will celebrate with the other Australian groups at the Australian Gathering at the start of the day and join in the Opening Mass with all the international pilgrims at the end of the day. It’s going to be one jam-packed, amazing, engerising, powerful, joyful day and I can’t wait to tell you all about it tomorrow! Until then, good night :)

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