By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special Contributor | Published November 3, 2005
Picture this: thousands of Catholic teenagers, many wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Discover Jesus” and “i pray,” sprinting through stadium aisles to claim front row seats—not for a football game, hockey game or concert—but for Mass.
Over 16,500 teens from across the United States gathered for Mass to conclude the 2005 National Catholic Youth Conference in Atlanta on Saturday, Oct. 29. The three-day event Oct. 27-29, packed with guest speakers, workshops and presentations to enrich their faith, allowed young Catholics to experience with their peers the diversity and support of the broader church community.
Those experiences culminated in the closing liturgy in the Georgia Dome, which really “brought the Mass to life,” said Rebecca Schmitt, 16, from the Diocese of Belleville, Ill. “There was so much energy even in the quiet moments.”
Youth waved colorful kites on long poles, liturgical dancers filled the air with incense and the NCYC youth choir sang, “Come Holy Spirit, send down your fire,” as over 120 priests and deacons and 15 bishops, including the main celebrant, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Atlanta Archdiocese, entered.
After youth proclaimed readings from Malachi and St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, those gathered heard from the Gospel of St. Matthew of how there is but one rabbi and one Father in heaven.
Archbishop Gregory focused on the important relationship between parents and their children to begin the homily.
“Part of parents’ jobs is to help us mature in ways that will guarantee our happiness as adults. Part of a young person’s responsibility is to remind parents that you are already making good progress in growing up—maybe faster than a parent might notice!”
He reminded them that Jesus was at one time their exact age.
“The Incarnation, that great act of God’s becoming a man like us, gives Him an intimate understanding of our human condition, and it allows Him to know entirely what goes through the minds and hearts of young people,” he explained. “I have every reason to believe that Jesus would be very much at home in such a gathering of young people, as we have hosted in Atlanta this weekend. I have every confidence to believe that He is here in our midst even as we speak of Him.”
The archbishop went on to explain why Jesus instructed the apostles not to be called rabbi as there is but one Teacher and one Father in heaven.
“The truth of God’s Word reminds us that we are all His children, no matter what our race, what our age, what our background, what our gender, what our talents, what our hopes and dreams may be.”
God knows and loves each of us, he continued.
“When youngsters share the same parents it means that they belong to the same family so the lesson of today’s Scripture is that we are all one family because we have one Father.”
The Eucharist provides lasting evidence of God’s deep love and longing to be with His people.
“As we gather around the Table of the Lord at our Mass we are reminded that the One Father who sent His only begotten Son feeds us with the Bread of Life so that we might deepen our love for Him and for one another. Each Mass is a celebration of that truth and the most important source of strengthening that conviction. Our Catholic faith is a great adventure in being family—God’s family.”
During Communion bishops and priests were led by Atlanta’s seminarians to various stations throughout the stadium. Teenagers quietly came forward to receive Christ present in the Eucharist and then returned to their seats to kneel or stand in silent prayer or song.
Following a medley of songs sung by the NCYC youth choir, well-known Catholic singers Tom Booth, Jesse Manibusan and emcee Steve Angrisano came forward to also lead the congregation in praising God as people in the upper balconies waited still to receive Communion.
Following the final blessing and procession, joyful noise erupted and kites flew throughout the stadium once more. Angrisano came onto the altar as everyone still lingered, not yet ready to leave even after the two-hour liturgy. He reminded the youth of three things: to pray, to gather with their community and to participate in the sacraments.
“We need you—Believe, believe, believe,” he implored them.
The group of animators, youth from various dioceses who led prayer services and songs throughout the event, then led their peers in one last song, “Winds of Change,” the conference’s theme.
“It’s amazing,” said Brittany Gonzalez, 16, of San Antonio, Texas. “Our church (in Texas) is a little church, but wow! I come here and realize how the religion itself is huge.”
Wiping away tears, animator Colleen Murphy, 15, from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, called it “an awesome privilege” to perform before so many of her Catholic peers.
“It’s something I definitely want to do again in two years. I’m going to miss my fellow animators.”
The conference helped Josh Dainton, 15, of the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., to grow closer to God.
“The speakers really had an impact,” he said, adding that he attended Jason Evert’s talk on sexuality. Dainton learned that you don’t have to have sex to be a man.
“You’re more of a man if you wait, and it shows respect for your future spouse.”
Joe Della Bella, a senior at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Ky., recalled lessons learned from Manibusan’s talk.
“He’s not always happy. I realize that the people you look up to are just like you.”
Even though they struggle in certain areas of their lives or don’t necessarily feel like “praising God above all things all the time,” as Manibusan confessed, Della Bella acknowledged that these role models “still make a difference and that means that you can make a difference, too.”
The exuberant show of faith left Brian Garcia, a Louisville freshman attending his first NCYC conference, feeling like “I was Baptist.”
“It was like a completely different place, wild and strange, but also really spiritual.”
Besides listening to speakers who easily connected with their audience, crowds of youth spilled out into the hallways of the Georgia World Congress Center in between keynote presentations as they waited to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. One room offered opportunities to experience various forms of prayer, from listening to a high school Taizé choir to praying the rosary to a contemporary mix of music performed by a Life Teen band. Handfuls of people at a time also took a moment to pray silently before the Blessed Sacrament during eucharistic adoration.
Youth made rosaries, prayer journals and blankets for newborns. They filled donated backpacks with toiletries, learned what Fair Trade is and played a pro-life jeopardy game and putt-putt golf with seminarians as part of Peachtree Corners, the thematic park that allowed teens to explore different aspects of their mind, body and spirit—and also afforded them an opportunity to buy T-shirts with Christian messages.
“To me, (the conference was) a bit like showing that there are so many youth interested in the church,” said Jennifer Ramirez, 17, of San Antonio. “They’re ready for leadership in helping the poor and fighting for justice.”
NCYC steering committee chairperson Barb Garvin of the Atlanta Archdiocese believed organizers “hit the mark” with their efforts to develop an understanding and love for the Eucharist.
“They really looked at Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and what that’s all about.”
Speaking in between hugs and words of appreciation from various youth who approached her, she recalled one of her favorite moments, the eucharistic procession through the halls of the Georgia World Congress Center.
“We’re really honored to have a sense of the eucharistic presence (in Atlanta),” she said, where a Eucharistic Renewal has been underway for a decade. “A lot of people don’t, but when they experience adoration … and XLT, and we can share that with 16,500 other kids, what that means to me is that it’s a real honor. We’re able to share the gifts of this diocese.”
Director of meetings and events for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, Maureen Gross hoped young people would have a good experience of church and realize that even though they come from many places, they share a common faith.
“They may look different, but they struggle with the same things,” she said. “I saw kids all singing along, fully engaged in prayer or Mass, hanging on every word a bishop or layperson said. It was incredibly satisfying.”
Her hope for the youth is that they know they have a place to go in times of trial.
Beyond the endearing pink flying pig, flamingo and jester hats, the beads and pins—even behind a gorilla mask—the secure embrace of a welcoming, loving church and its message to go out and live the Gospel rang clear.
“Being surrounded by so many Catholics your age reminds you that you’re a part of something really big,” said Cornell. “It’s inspiring.”