The Republic of Panama - a country in Central America bordering the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is mainly associated with the Panama Canal. The New York Chapter of the John Paul II Foundation organized a trip to Panama from March 3rd to March 8th. It was another Latin American country which we visited recently with the Chapter. And, always during our trips we are trying to find places associated with John Paul II, so we did the same this time as well.
The capital of the country – Panama City
The walking tour we started from the historic part of the city – Casco Viejo, which was built by Spaniards. The oldest buildings from the colonial times date back to 1673. Currently, the entire complex of the historic city is being renovated. We also visited the sacred buildings of the city: the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and the Church of San Jose (St. Joseph) from the seventeenth century. The main altar was made of gold in 1675. We are also visiting other buildings of the capital among which we can list the building where the president has his office, the National Theater, Bolivar Square, Independence Square. The historic part of the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997. There is also the modern part of the city which surprised all visitors with the number of skyscrapers which dominate the city.
Saint John Paul II in Panama
Holy Father John Paul II visited Panama on March 5, 1983, during His 17th Apostolic pilgrimage, which also included: Portugal, Cost Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Haiti. The purpose of the pilgrimage was to meet with the faithful people from these countries, revive faith and to pray for peace. There was also a special meeting with camoesinos (poor) farmers of Panama for whom a Mass was celebrated. The most important event of the John Paul II pilgrimage to Panama was the Mass for families. This event was commemorated by the construction of a chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II in Panama City. Beside the chapel, there is a monument of Pope John Paul II with the figures of the family – father and mother holding a baby in her arms. It is a symbol of the Pope – defender of families. After entering the chapel and prayer, we spontaneously intoned “Barge.” We were touched that so far away, in the country of Central America the cult of our Countryman is so vivid that the faithful people from Panama in 2013 paid Him a tribute by building this special chapel and monument.
In the Indian village
On boats from the Corotua port we are reaching the Indian Village Embera. In the village lives a small group of 57 indigenous people of this country. We are learning their history and culture. They live in houses built from various materials available in the area: wood, bamboo, palm leaves. We learn that women take care of the housework, families and production of a hand-made craft from natural sources, while men are hunting, farming and gathering resources. They wear traditional Indian clothes. Women have colorful skirts, beads, ornaments on the heads. Not a long time ago, skirts were made from the bark of trees. Our visit in the village ended with ritual dance in which we participated along with Indians. On the way back, we had another attraction. We stopped on a small island to see capuchin monkeys which live in their natural environment. We were able to observe, make pictures and even feed them.
On boats from the town of Colon we are going on the water of the Panama Canal. For all of us, it is a very exciting experience. We can personally admire the work of art and human thought. It is considered an art piece of the engineering profession. In 1881, the French company F. De Lesseps undertook the task of building a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Unfortunately, it went bankrupt. In 1903, the United States of America supported the secession of Panama from Columbia and signed a treaty with Panama which gave them the right to perpetual lease of a 10-mile long strip from Panama on which in years 1904 to 1914 the Panama Canal was built. It is the most important trade route of the modern world. For more than 75 years the area of the canal was under the jurisdiction of the United States. Just the treaty from 1977 gave the right to the Canal back to Panamanian people, while the official transfer took place in 1999. Currently, the expansion of the channel is ongoing. Locked huge ships, barely making through the channel make a great impression on us. The airlock ships are pulled by tugboats rolling on rails on both sides of the channel. We are also visiting the Museum of the Panama Canal in which we can see tools, clothes, models of machines and ships specially built for the need of the Canal builders.
The historic city of Portobelo
The place on which the city of Portobelo was built was discovered at first by Christopher Columbus in 1502. He named this place as “Beautiful Port.” Then, the city was founded in 1597 by the Spanish explorer Francisco Valarde y Marcado. It was the main base of the New Spain fleet and an important shipping port of silver which was going to Europe. Spaniards erected here a fortress; it was a heavily guarded port. To this day, we can see walls, stone bridges, dozens of cannons. In 1980, the San Lorenzo Fortress and ruins of the fortifications were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On October 21st of each year, countless pilgrims from all over the country are coming to participate in the annual feast in the honor of the Black Christ (Negro Christo). His statue and the place of worship are located in the St. Philip Church and it is named as the Sanctuary of Christ of Nazareth (El Nazarenio). The life-size statue of Christ with the cross on His shoulders is made of black wood. He is dressed in an ornate robe, which is changed twice a year. It is not known exactly when and what circumstances brought this figure on the Caribbean cost of Panama. It is believed that around the year 1658 the figure of the Black Christ came to the village where it became famous for miracles.
The history of the figure is very interesting. Each time the ship which was transporting the figure of the Black Christ from Europe was trying to pull out of Portobelo for the further trip, it encountered bad weather and it had to return to the port. Therefore, it was decided to leave the figure in the port with an understanding that the Black Christ wants to be with inhabitants of Portobelo. According to another legend, in 1658 a chest with the statue of the Black Christ washed up on the shore. Residents who did not know what to do with it threw it back into the sea. After that, people started to get sick and die. A plaque hit the town. After some time, the sea again washed up the figure on the shore and a miracle happened – the plaque ceased and the figure of the Black Christ reminded with residents. Black slaves and mulattos have a special devotion to the figure. Many of them through the intercession of the Black Christ were healed. Every year, thousands of pilgrims dressed in purple, walking bare foot participate in the procession with candles. The statue of the Black Christ is carried by 80 men in a characteristic procession – three steps forward and two backwards.
In this wonderful sanctuary our group participated in a Mass which was celebrated by the Chaplain of the New York Chapter Rev. Józef Szpilski and Rev. Andrzej Kurowski, Pastor from St. Frances de Chantal Church in Brooklyn.
Our visit in Panama ended on the Pacific Ocean in the resort of Santa Clara. We stayed there for two days walking on the beach, swimming in the warm waters of the ocean and admiring the exotic nature. We would like to come back here, to Panama, in 2019 for the World Youth days which were initiated in 1985 by the Founder of our Foundation, St. John Paul II.
Text and pictures: Agnieszka May and Kazimiera Szafran