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Finding God in the heart of the ocean

Daniel Harkins has just moved from Coatbridge to Panama City. In his new column exploring Faith around the world he introduces us to a young man on a remarkable journey.

Picture a tiny white dot in a massive blue expanse – a clear sky, joined at the horizon with the endless azure of the Pacific Ocean. The white speck is a catamaran, a sail boat, making its way from Panama City across the sea to Asia. It is crewed by 19-year-old Michael Bauer, his 60-year-old father Paul, his brother James, 22, a 78-year-old captain and one crew member.

“At night when you are on the boat you are surrounded by 360 degrees of darkness,” Michael told me before he began his journey this week. “If it’s cloudy, you don’t see anything, it’s just black. So then you look down. And that’s not any better, because that’s an infinity below.”

I met Michael in Panama City’s Casco Viejo, the old quarter built in 1673 after Welsh pirate Henry Morgan burnt down the original city. Its streets are narrow and hot, with tourists squeezed alongside locals who are being increasingly pushed out of the area to make way for new developments.

Rooftop hostel bars overlook ancient buildings, including the ruins of a Jesuit church, destroyed over the centuries, first by the suppression of the order in 1767, then a fire and an earthquake. Michael, an American who sailed out from Florida in December, told me about his Christian Faith, rediscovered as a young teenager after a period as an atheist.

Honest and passionate, he explained that he has not yet found his denomination but speaks with a righteous desire for a world less obsessed with consumerism.

“God, of course, in His infinite wisdom wanted me to go on this trip,” he said. “People, especially nowadays in the West, are so caught up in these tiny little rectangles that live in our pockets… which we are literally killing ourselves [with] because we cannot take our eyes off these boxes when we’re driving.

“On this trip, I find myself not really yearning for any of those materialistic things. I am perfectly content not having all of these little gizmos and gadgets and luxuries of life around.

“I’m away from the materialism of the world.”

I arrived in Panama in January, and the Faith that John expressed, so alive, so vibrant, is visible all around this country. On the picturesque Isla de Taboga, off the coast of the city, you pass icons of saints and a shrine to the Virgin Mary as you make your way to the giant crucifix that stands atop the island, looking down on the small bay town of San Pedro.

Further west, in the mountain village of Boquete, Sunday Mass is so full people are left kneeling on the steps outside the little church. A few days later I travel east, to El Valle, where the climate is distinctly Scottish – a rainy, windy paradise away from the oppressive heat of Panama City. Here, at an Ash Wednesday Mass, San Jose Church is also full.

In the shadow of a massive, green mountain, I listen through an open side door to an endless homily and though I catch little of the Spanish, the nervous eyes of my fellow parishioners tells me it is full of chastisement.

The order of Mass is of course familiar, despite the language barrier, but there are variations. The Panamanians hold hands, palms up, as they say the Our Father. And on the altar, next to a Vatican flag, is the flag of Panama.

I can only imagine the letters that would be sent to this publication should Saltires begin to populate our altars.

In the far west of the country, planes land in the party islands of Bocas Del Toro with a ‘God bless this plane’ announcement, whilst in the east, in the remote jungle of the Darien, villagers have pictures of The Last Supper on the walls of their simple wooden homes.

Catholicism is strong in Panama. Estimates vary of the percentage who adhere to the Faith, but a 2015 document from the Archdiocese of Panama put it as high as 85 per cent.

It was for this reason that Pope Francis chose the capital city to host the 2019 World Youth Day. I remember covering it at the time, speaking to three young people who had travelled out from Scotland.

Panama seemed a world away then. I see the enthusiastic Faith of those young people echoed in Michael.

“When you look at the paths in front of you in life, nine times out of 10, the hard decision is the right decision,” he said before his epic journey across the world.

“Satan loves it when you’re comfortable. Satan loves it when you’re complacent. When you’re sitting down, watching the TV 10 hours a day.

“So I would 100% encourage people to take the risk and do the hard thing.”

Over the coming months, in this column, I plan to explore such examples of a lived Faith around the world. I hope you can join me on the journey.

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