By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published June 16, 2005
There was no mistaking which track belonged to the teens of the archdiocese at this year’s Eucharistic Congress held June 4.
High school and middle school youth poured by the thousands into Exhibit Hall A of the Georgia International Convention Center, on a mission to praise their Creator. And they praised him loudly.
The music of Canadian singer Janelle and her band, ONE80, filled the enormous room and reverberated off the walls of other tracks, and the streaming light show produced a sophisticated concert-like atmosphere.
Speakers in the teen track, who included Mike Patin, Michelle Benzinger and Mark Hart, came both to entertain and to challenge the young people, many of whom say they feel that having their own track at the Eucharistic Congress makes them feel more a part of the larger church.
“I’ve always felt like we matter to the church,” said Taylor Schlosser, an upcoming high school senior from St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro. “By having a separate track for us, it’s like they want us to know how much they care. Sometimes a teenager’s mind is just not as mature as an adult’s. It’s great that they give us our own thing to help us understand more of our faith.”
With his strong Cajun accent, New Orleans youth minister Mike Patin started off the track using teenage volunteers for interactive faith lessons. He had the teens read signs that he held up, including one that said “Godisnowhere.” Some teens pronounced it as “God is now here,” while others read it as “God is nowhere.”
His goal, he said, was to help teens to look at things in a different way. So many young people are looking for “who they are” in sports, academics or in who they date.
“Why do we look at ourselves the way we do?” he asked. “But the Lord sees you and me just as we are. No games.”
“I don’t care why you came. I don’t care if you’re not even sure God exists. It’s where you’re starting from today,” he said. “I am here to tell you that it’s not about you looking at God. It’s about you starting to let God look at you.”
The teens laughed as Patin provided animated accounts of his own life and faith journey and told them that God isn’t telling them to make the choice between Him and other things in their lives.
“God is saying, ‘I know you’re young. I know you want to have your fun. I’m not asking you to choose as much as you think I am. I’m just asking you to include me,’” he said.
The key to holiness, Patin said, is “showing up and being open.”
“I go to Eucharist because, yes, I want to see Jesus, but I also want Jesus to see me. I need to hear that despite all my mess, he still believes in me,” he said. “My dear young friends, he still believes in you, too, despite all your mess, despite all your sin, he loves you and believes in you.”
Patin received a standing ovation from the teens.
During a lunch break, teen band Aspen provided entertainment and were followed by Janelle and her husband talking about their own faith journeys as individuals and as a couple.
Speaker Michelle Benzinger recounted how her life was forever transformed after her first mission trip to Mexico. A self-described “girly girl” who wanted to pursue a fashion career, Benzinger realized that God was calling her to more.
“I was at my best when I was on mission. I learned how to serve, I learned how to love,” she said.
Benzinger and her husband, Chris, served as missionaries for the past several years with Trinity World Missions, serving first in Europe (the Netherlands and Austria) and then in Mexico. Parents of two young boys, the couple recently returned to Georgia to serve at the Covecrest LIFE TEEN camp in Tiger, one of three LIFE TEEN camps in the United States.
Though Benzinger had plans for her life, she quickly found out that God’s plan was even greater. She encouraged the teens to trust in God’s design for their lives.
“When we’re following God’s will, our hearts begin to burn,” she said. “That’s because something outside of them is making them feel alive.”
The last speaker to address the teens was Mark Hart, vice president of LIFE TEEN, the international Catholic ministry to teens focusing on vibrant celebrations of the Eucharist. Pacing barefoot back and forth across the stage, Hart talked about the importance of Scripture in getting to know Christ. Hart reaches tens of thousands weekly in his “Spread the Word” e-mails, written by his alter ego, Bible Geek.®
“We all know people who quote the Bible. That’s great. I quote movie lines,” he joked. “But knowing words from the Bible doesn’t mean you know the author. So often we exist on the story. We exist on the words, not on the author. So these people that quote Scripture, do they really know it? Do they really pray it? Because knowing Scripture and praying Scripture are two very different things.”
Hart spoke of his own relationship with God as his faith grew.
“I realized I knew all the stories, but I was afraid to know the author. I was afraid to let him know me,” he said. “I’m just a character in the story, and I was telling God, the author, what to write. I wasn’t letting God be God.”
He empathized with the young people about the peer pressure in their lives.
“You guys are surrounded by people who are the living dead, people who are so discontent with their lives, so consumed with self-image, so afraid what people will say about them that they don’t live,” he said.
He encouraged the teens to invite God into their lives, and he reminded them of the gift they have in the Mass.
“Jesus in the Eucharist is real. He’s just as real as he was 2,000 years ago.”
There is “no wrong way to read Scripture, except not to,” he told the teens, encouraging them to read the Bible, and put themselves “into the story” for one month.
“I want you guys to have Bibles that are so worn out that you literally have to glue it and tape it together. A worn-out Bible is a sign of a Catholic who is not.”
The teens streamed out of the exhibit hall, many of them to join their parents for Mass. Liz Nelis, an upcoming senior who attends St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, said that the Congress was a chance for her to reenergize her faith.
“I loved the speakers. They really got you into it,” she said.
Nelis also felt that the teen track shows that young people have a firm place in the church.
“They really do care about us and want us to grow in Christ like they did when they were younger,” she said.
Katie Peterson, an upcoming high school junior, just moved to Atlanta from Arizona.
“This was so much fun,” she said. “It was so exciting to see so many people gathered together for the same reason.”
As a young Catholic, Peterson said, she feels a sense of obligation and responsibility toward the church.
“We’re the future of the church, and we know that it’s up to us to influence the culture of death.”