Panama with Pope Francis

Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics gathered on the Cinta Costera in Panama City for World Youth Day event. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia, January 24, 2019, Panama City

Rock-star priests and dancing nuns, shimmering skyscrapers and stinking chemical toilets, juvenile prisoners with tattoos and rosaries and Vatican staffers in Panama hats…those are just a few of the things I experienced covering the Pope last week in Panama.

I sat on a bus with photographers and camerapersons and tried to edit video while helmeted motorcycle escorts, careening through city streets, blocked traffic for us to surge past.  I trampled through a giant field at dawn packed with 700,000 young people from all over the world, stepping over dirty blankets, bags of food and sleeping bodies while loudspeakers blasted “JESUS CHRIST, YOU ARE MY LIFE!  HALLELUJAH, HAAA LEEE LUUU JAH” – and I am still singing that refrain after a week.

Pope Francis going through the crowd in his popemobile ahead of the Vigil at World Youth Day. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. January 25, 2018

Panama – an s-shaped piece of land nearly 500 miles long, connecting Costa Rica to Colombia, is a meeting point between East and West where, at its narrowest point, the Panama Canal is an 80 kilometer (50 mile) stretch that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean,

In his first speech, at Palacio Bolivar in Panama’s charming Spanish Colonial style old city, Casco Viejo, Pope Francis described Panama as a point of “encounter” a “hub of hope” and a “land of dreams.”

Pope Francis and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela at the Presidential Palace in the Casco Viejo – Old City – in Panama City. January 24, 2019 – Photo by Trisha Thomas

He was there for an intense four days of events for World Youth Day – a tri-annual Catholic youth festival.

Just a few days before our departure, AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara got sick and had to back out of the trip.  The Vatican said it was too late to replace him on the papal plane.  My colleague Paolo Santalucia agreed to join me directly in Panama City and help me cover the Pope there, but that still left me covering the Pope on the plane by myself.

I have worked with AP television for 25 years as a journalist/producer and can use a simple camera with automatic focus but I was kicking myself for not having learned to use the more sophisticated cameras. I frantically got lessons from my colleagues on the use of white balance, iris, diaphragms, automatic versus manual focus, audio channel 1,2 and line. (the switch needs to be on “line” for the cable with the audio of the Pope speaking on the plane, just in case you were wondering!).  In addition, I had to carry camera, tripod, computer, batteries, cables, light and microphones. (AP’s Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield graciously helped me with the tripod).  On the way back Vatican TV’s Adriano Corda, stepped in and filmed the 45-minute in-flight press conference for me so I could concentrate on taking notes which made editing after much easier.  I will be forever grateful to him.

AP's Trisha Thomas and Alessandra Tarantino boarding the Papal Plane in Rome to fly to Panama City. Rome, January 23, 2019. Credit: Remo Casilli
AP’s Trisha Thomas and Alessandra Tarantino boarding the Papal Plane in Rome to fly to Panama City. Rome, January 23, 2019. Credit: Remo Casilli

On arriving in Panama City, one is immediately struck by the dazzling skyline with dozens of super-modern skyscrapers lining the waterfront.  There is even the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower.  My first evening AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino and I went to visit a friend of hers who works for IFAD in Panama City.  We took an Uber that pulled up in front of a massive skyscraper with palm trees outside.  Alessandra and I looked at each other perplexed, “are we in Miami?”  I asked.  Her friend Dario took us up to his apartment on the 54th floor.  The elevator took an eternity.  Dario explained that he plans an activity for every trip up and down– stretching exercises if he is coming back from the gym, or papers to read for work.

His balcony had a spectacular view out to the sea and down the waterfront to the old city.  He showed us how many of the skyscrapers around us were mostly empty and had only a few lights on.  I was told by several people that a combination of narcos money and other laundering has contributed to this skyline.  A lot of this came out in the Panama Papers investigation which, back in 2016, unveiled that a law firm in Panama City was being used by powerful politicians and wealthy businesspeople from all over the globe to take advantage of offshore tax havens and conduct illegal financial dealings in the region.

The American presence was strong in Panama City with US-style shopping malls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds and super-powerful air conditioning.

This post in not about Narcos money, money-laundering or US-Panama relations but I will say a few words about the canal, even though I never had a free moment to go see it.  The Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, did make a quick trip to the canal and was given the opportunity to open a gate and let a cruise ship through.

The Spanish were the first ones to come up with the idea for a canal in the 1800s, and it was later attempted by the French engineer behind the Suez Canal, but some 22,000 men died of disease in Panama and the project was abandoned.  The Americans took it up and completed it in 1914 and kept control over the canal until 1999, at which point, they handed it over to the Panamanian government.

In a project that cost over 5 billion dollars and was completed in 2016, the canal was widened so larger ships can get through. About 14,000 ships pass through ever year—a process that now takes about 4 hours — paying up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

In the evening, I could see the lights of the ships in the distance from my hotel room window at the Sheraton as they waited their turn to pass through the canal.

The Pope was staying at the Nunciature – the Vatican Embassy to Panama.  The Nunciature in Panama City has a rather interesting in background.  In 1989 when the US invaded Panama to overthrow then dictator General Manuel Noriega, he sought refuge in the Nunciature.  US troops surrounded the Papal Nunciature and blasted rock music – Guns n’ Roses, The Clash, and Jethro Tull- for days non-stop until, after 10 days, the Papal Nuncio (Vatican Ambassador to Panama) convinced him to go and he was escorted to the gate.

Over the course of the Pope’s visit there we covered several events in the Casco Viejo – the old city – the only part of town with old wooden Spanish Colonials structures.

A ballerina stretches at the edge of the stage with the Panama skyline in the distance as she prepares to perform in the Via Crucis – Stations of the Cross- re-enactment at the World Youth Day with Pope Francis in Panama City. January 25, 2019 – Photo by Trisha Thomas

Several events for the visit were held along the Cinta Costera – a long green grassy park area running down the coastline.  It had been set up with a cascading series of stages and our first evening there we – and the Pope – were entertained by a lively show of traditional Panamanian dancers, youths with flags from all over the world, hard-rocking priests and dancing nuns.

A band of rocking priests entertains the crowd at the opening event at World Youth Day in Panama City. January 24, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas
Traditional Panamanian dancers wait at the side of the stage at the opening event at World Youth Day in Panama City. January 24, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

We barreled around Panama City on a large mini-bus.  Every time we stepped inside it, the air-conditioning and the radio were blasting.  Much to the dismay of our security detail the photographers promptly opened the windows to let in the hot air and poke out their long lenses.  We careened through the city’s traffic as our teams of helmeted men on motorcycles roared around us stopping cars, waving their arms and guns and blaring their sirens.  I could definitely use a couple of those guys to get me through the traffic in Rome.

The military escort for the Vatican press bus in Panama – fatigues, helmets, gloves and weapons – just to get us to the Papal events. On the road to Pacore, January 26, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As usual on Papal trips, those of us who will be near the Pope at events are expected to wear black.  Each of us has our own interpretation of how to handle this.  My photographer colleague Alessandra says black pants and closed shoes are a must.  I showed up at one event on the cascading stages with a dress above my knees and sandals.  We were covering a Via Crucis, or a modern reenactment of the Stations of the Cross. As the evening wore on, we realized we had enough material and I needed to get out our edit, but it would be hours before we were taken back to our hotel.  So, I awkwardly knelt on a corner of the stage, trying to keep my legs under me and not expose my undies to hundreds of thousands of people as I edited my video.  “Do you think you could have worn a more unsuitable outfit?” Alessandra asked, as she stood near me with her cameras draped around her neck.

AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino and Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia at the Via Crucis ceremony at World Youth Day in Panama City. January 26, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Another day I wore a black jacket made of some partially synthetic fabric and, in the heat of the day, it was plastered to my skin and I was sweating like a pig.  “Linen or cotton only,” the photographers advised, “or you won’t survive.”

The AFP photographer had his own clothing operation going on.  He said before every trip he goes to the Porta Portese, an open air market in Rome, and buys 10 cheap t-shirts and 10 pairs of underwear (one euro each, 20 in total) and during papal trips he goes back to the hotel at the end of the day, pulls them off and tosses them in the trash.  One does get pretty hot and sweaty sometimes, but that seems a bit of an exaggeration.

(see blog post on Hacks in Black)

Sunrise at World Youth Day Mass in Panama City. Seven hundred thousand young people were camped out in this field. January 27, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Being part of the tight pool around the Pope means getting to events hours before the Pope arrives.  This gives us time to throw ourselves into the crowd and interview people or sit around waiting. We also get taken away early, many times before the Pope has finished speaking so that our bus can get to the next event before the pope does.  So, while I have copies of all the Pope’s speeches, I don’t always get to hear whether he actually delivered everything that was prepared or when off-the-cuff.

AP has to have a wire presence in the main press center watching all events live, as well as a TV presence recording all live coverage of the Pope.  (Papal trips are a massive expense in terms of staffing – not only do we often have a four-person team traveling with the Pope on the plane, but there are usually about 8 more people on the ground.  On this particular trip, it seemed that the Pope’s activities were getting little attention in the media, given, among other things, the chaos in nearby Venezuela.  However, AP has found that our reports on the Pope and the Vatican tend to get heavy use by our clients – broadcasters, newspapers, websites – around the world, therefore, it is a worthwhile investment.

Journalists on media platforms at final mass for World Youth Day. Freeze frame of video by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia – January 27, 2019

But in the pool of hot, sweaty, people dressed in black, I am often left scrambling to figure out what the Pope said, and whether the story has diverted in a new direction, which actually happened a couple times on the trip.  The journalists covering the Papal trips set up several Whatsapp and Telegram groups to constantly pass on information about what is going on adding new quotes and color.  There is a real sense of teamwork.

The climax of World Youth Day is the final vigil followed by a massive outdoor sleepover and then a morning mass.

Nuns roll up their sleeping bags at dawn on Sunday, January 27 in Panama City. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As usual we got to the Vigil event hours early and Paolo and I threw ourselves into the crowd as Catholic youth jived to music blaring on loudspeakers.  It seemed like a massive Woodstock without the alcohol and drugs.  There was lots of peace and love and a feel-good atmosphere.  I was not sure if any love-making was going on, but I am guessing that it was given all the pop-up tents.  Sometimes all that Catholic teaching on sexuality has to give a little bit.

I interviewed two 15-year-old girls from Guatemala who were flitting about getting signatures on their flag from young people from as many countries as possible. We filmed them getting a signature from a Canadian girl. They were elated at the number of countries they had gotten.  I interviewed people from New Zealand, Poland, Hungary, France, Britain, Italy, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras and El Salvador and Mexico.  I was especially pleased when I bumped into a man named Raymond Sawadogo Kiswensidad from Burkina Faso. He said he had spent 26 hours flying from Ouagadougou to Istanbul to Bogota to Panama City.  Phew. That is a long way but he said it was worth it.

Trisha Thomas with Raymond Sawadogo Kiswendsidad of Burkina Faso ahead of the evening vigil at World Youth Day. January 26, 2019 – Photo by Paolo Santalucia

“What we are feeling here cannot compare with anything else in the world.  We are here at the Worth Youth Day and we are going to see the Holy Father Francis and we are truly happy.” He said before doing a little jig with some other young man passing by as they chanted “we are the Pope’s youth.”

Two young men crashed out under World Youth Day umbrellas ahead of the Vigil with Pope Francis, January 26, 2018. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As we wandered about interviewing young people, Paolo and I were both struck by the positive energy.  Pope John Paul II came up with the idea of World Youth Day and it appears to be an effective way to change attitudes about the Catholic Church.  For a young person, a love-fest in a field is definitely going to make you like the church more than a bunch of stuffy Vatican priests, bishops and cardinals telling you how to behave.

Eric Peralta from Playa Del Carmen, Mexico where his Our Lady of Guadalupe banner. January 26, 2019 – Photo by Trisha Thomas

Certainly there is nothing stuffy about our media team on the these trips. The Vatican’s Matteo Bruni and Salvatore Scolozzi donned Panama hats for leading the media teams around during the trip.

The Vatican media team of Matteo Bruni and Salvatore Scolozzi both in Panama hats outside Les Garza de Pacora prison for juveniles shortly before the Pope’s arrival. January 25, 2019 – Photo by Trisha Thomas

Perhaps a highlight for me was the trip we made outside of Panama City to Las Garzas de Pacora, a Juvenile Detention center about a 45-minute drive away.  As soon as you get out of the City, Panama starts looking much more like places in Cuba and Colombia that I visited with the Pope.  Poor people standing in front of shacks along the roads hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope, a thick greenery behind them.

Loops of barbed wire ran the length of the walls around the detention center and a guard tower gave it a dangerous look – and yet, once we entered, it seemed much more relaxed than other prisons I have entered to cover a visit by Pope Francis

(I covered the Pope at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia – Hacks in Black  and the Cereso N. # in Ciudad Juarez Mexico, see Fences, Barbed Wire and Walls)

Juvenile prisoners waiting for Pope Francis at Las Garzas de Pacora detention center in Panama. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 25, 2019

There are 192 prisoners there and a group of them sat under a tent wearing World Youth Day T-shirts, holding small Panamanian.  In addition, a few had a bible or a rosary.  They looked so young and sweet to me compared to prisoners I have seen elsewhere.  The prison director told me that there were prisoners convicted of murder and rape among them.  The Pope criticized societies that divide into good and bad, marginalize, separate and isolate people.  He encouraged the boys “keep fighting” and choose the “path of change,” before hearing confessions from five of them.

This post is not a news story about what the Pope said or did on this trip but I will just run through a few topics.  He spoke about walls that “sow fear” and “fear will drive us crazy.”  He spoke about problems in the Latin American region including corrupt politicians, narco-traffickers, the plight of indigenous people, migration, the plague of violence against women and the culture of death.  He spoke about the “weariness of hope” that comes from seeing a church “wounded by sin” and a reality where “faith is crumbling and failing.”  Pope Francis may be feeling the pressure of the February 21-24 sex abuse summit at the Vatican.

On the plane on the way back he spoke about what he saw as the natural “nobility” of the Panamanian people and said he noticed how they held their children up with pride to show them to him. He compared that to what he described as the “demographic winter” in Europe where, he said, couples prefer villas, dogs, and vacations to having children.

Young mother in Panama, with an adorable girl who is sleeping through the commotion, waves to Pope Francis. January 27, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But I would like to conclude with a comment by the Pope at the Vigil Mass with hundreds of thousands of young people that got me thinking.  He told the young people that the Virgin Mary, although not a user of “social media” and not an “influencer” was “the most influential woman in history.”

I agree with the Pope’s message on social media.  Young people need to know that you can be influential without posting and clicking all the time.  I do too much myself.  But the thought that the most influential woman in history simply gave birth to a man (God, according to the Church) who changed history stuck in my gullet the way the “Jesus Christ, you are my life” refrain was stuck in my brain.

So, I started to think about who I might have on my list of top influential women in history….but that will be in my next post.

8 thoughts on “Panama with Pope Francis”

  1. Bonnie Melielo

    The Blessed Mother, Mary, did not “simply give birth to a man”. A “sound bite” doesn’t work here. Within the context of Catholic theology Mary’s Fiat has affected the course of history for over 2000 years .

    1. Hi Bonnie — Well I think you may be the only person who got to the end of my rather lengthy post. And I appreciate your response. As you know from the post, I am a journalist for a news agency who works daily with soundbites which are not a good way to get a deep understanding of anything. Although the Pope does have a deep understanding of Mary, he, also, often works in soundbites because he knows how to distill his message and transmit it through the media. However, my interpretation of Mary “simply giving birth to a man” may be inaccurate and does not address the “Fiat.” For those bloggers who, like me, think Fiat is an Italian carmaker, a quick google search will reveal that in this context it is Mary saying “yes” accepting the will of God, accepting her destiny to be the bearer of Christ. I would agree with you that within the context of Catholic theology she has affected the course of history for 2000 years, but I still would like to think of some other more proactive women who were influential in history. There are so many, even within the Catholic Church, Mother Teresa and Joan of Arc, to name a few.

  2. Hi Trisha,
    Another interesting post I enjoyed reading. Hope I can get this comment through. The last blog about closing the family farm was also interesting and your description of spending time there reminded me of spending time with my grandparents at their cottage in Wisconsin.
    I tried twice to comment on that one, but aol was not working too well while I was in Rome, and I have a feeling that might have been the problem when I couldn’t find my reply when I checked back on my tablet. Something I’ll probably never know for sure.
    Couple of not good sentences for former journalist/English teacher, but sending them anyway–and hoping I get the submit right!
    I may get around to changing my email before too long to gmail, but I will definitely make sure I change your blog address.
    A presto, Joan

    1. Joan, it is so kind of you to read all my posts and send your comments. I am sorry that they don’t always go through. I have been really slacking off on the blog recently but when I hear from you it always inspires me to write more. thank you!

  3. Sarah Chiarello

    Always a pleasure reading your stories, Trisha! Missing the behind the scenes from the Pope’s coverage by AP, too.

    1. Thank you Sarah! We could really use you here this week. It is starting to turn into a media circus in and around the Vatican. This meeting on sexual abuse is becoming a huge story. If I have time I will do a post. Today there was the laicization of McCarrick, Monday and Tuesday we have all sorts of press conferences with abuse groups and then the meetings start Thursday.

  4. I’m so glad you are writing again. I always enjoy your behind the scenes take on these huge events and trips. I was away for work when this was taking place and saw bits and pieces of the news. I find these world youth days so interesting. I hear so much about how religion is dying in the US then I go to my parents parish and it is packed and I go to my brothers and it is packed and you show the huge crowds.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Kelly! I am just working on a post now on the abuse summit at the Vatican. I was just looking at the numbers, the Catholic Church is losing ground in terms of numbers of faithful, priests and nuns in Europe and the US, but it is growing in many other parts of the globe.

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