By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2005
Amid the cheers, despite the silly hats and T-shirts, in the midst of the fun and excitement of the National Catholic Youth Conference held Oct. 27-29, there were lessons to be learned.
The message of the conference was heard loud and clear by the teens. “God loves you, is always with you—and that love can change your life.”
Though they had the opportunity to play games and shop in a thematic park, to trade pins, beads and hats with new friends from across the country, and to sing and praise God along with top Catholic musicians, in the keynote sessions of the conference, the 17,000 teens listened to the stories and words of empowerment that have the potential to influence them for a lifetime.
Keynote speakers Tammy Evevard, Bishop Gordon Bennett, SJ, and Jesse Manibusan shared with the teens their own faith testimonies, as well as practical ways to live out their faith.
The opening session on Friday, Oct. 28, began with a creative, youth-led experience of prayer that made even the larger-than-life dimensions of the Georgia Dome feel warm and intimate. Drawing upon the conference theme of “Winds of Change,” the singers invited the Holy Spirit to come and animate the event into a life-changing encounter with God.
As thousands of teens swarmed into the rising tiers of end zone seating, the close-up faces of youth singing “Veni Creator Spiritu” flashed on a huge screen. A group of youth animators, wearing denim jeans and colorful T-shirts, came up the center aisle onto a wave-like stage and stretched and extended themselves in graceful postures of prayer and worship coordinated with the music or dramatizing the reading of the account of Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles.
The faces and voices of young soloists, both men and women, projected their heartfelt love of God, while animators unfurled airy sheets of fabric, finally joining them together on the stage in the shape of a multicolored cross, visible from the highest rafters.
Music, which speaks powerfully to youth, was the jumping off point for the morning’s speaker, Tammy Evevard, who contrasted the emptiness even the most successful person can feel with the fullness that comes from personally experiencing God’s love.
In a Rolling Stone interview, the performer Sting acknowledged that despite his fame, fortune and family he still experienced emptiness, she said.
“How is this?” she asked. “He has everything the world says would bring us happiness.”
What’s missing, Evevard said, is “the thing that matters most … the thing that makes the rest of it worthwhile—a relationship with a God who is crazy about us.”
In the time of Noah, after the ark was built and filled, there was a time when God waited for seven days, Evevard said, “just in case there was anybody left who wanted to be saved.”
“It wasn’t logical, it didn’t make any sense. It was crazy love. That’s the kind of thing we mean when we say we have a God who is crazy about us.”
That love “is what takes care of the emptiness Sting is talking about.”
A former member of the National Evangelization Team who frequently speaks to young people on relationships and God’s love for them, the Colorado woman not only told teens how passionately God cares for them but how they can be the ones to spread the news to their peers.
The Samaritan woman in the Gospel, a rejected sinner, was the last person one would expect Jesus to choose as an evangelist, she said, “yet by her words she brought that town to believe in a God who loved her.”
“We are meant to be like the woman who runs to the town and says, ‘Come and see. Come and see a God who is crazy about you.’”
She spoke of a former co-worker who repeatedly showed signs she was being treated roughly by her husband, finally coming to work one day with a black eye and neck bruises. Unsure what to say to help her, Evevard finally said, “Don’t you believe God would want better for you?” The words may have helped as that day the woman asked her brother to help her move out.
“God has so much good for us if we’ll let him do it, if we’ll let him be the living water for us,” Evevard said.
The Bible is full of “words of love … crying out, crying out, ‘I love you,’ crying out, there is something to hope in, there is a God who passionately, crazily loves us.”
Singing a verse of “Amazing Grace,” she concluded her talk inviting the teens to let God be the center of their lives. “We are meant to know the shepherd,” Evevard said.
Emcee Steve Angrisano then underlined her point, saying that he gets intensely riled up over a once-popular song, “From A Distance.”
“God is not watching you from a distance. He is right here,” said Angrisano, a musician, songwriter and youth minister in Colorado for 11 years. “He is not loving the ‘youth of America.’ He is loving you.”
Angrisano added that he was moved to tears when Pope Benedict XVI chose to speak to young people at the end of his first papal liturgy and say, “Young people, on the basis of long personal experience I say to you, give everything to Christ. He takes away nothing and gives you everything.”
On Friday evening Bishop Bennett of Mandeville, Jamaica, his voice deep and imploring, told teens that they are fighting a battle and must constantly shield themselves with the love of Christ. Jesus, Bishop Bennett said, kept his promises to his children—to not leave them orphaned and to send them an advocate, the Holy Spirit.
“We look around us this evening, and we cannot help but affirm that Jesus has not left us alone,” he said, gesturing to the crowd, which sparkled with the blinking lights worn by teens on pins and hats. “There is so much goodness here among us, so much energy and enthusiasm, so many gifts and so much talent. He has given us these things so that we can support each other.”
In the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has given an advocate to his people.
“The reality of our prayer that we celebrate tonight is that he has not only given us each other, but he has asked the Father to send us his Holy Spirit,” Bishop Bennett said. “Just like those disciples, when you and I accept the gift of the Holy Spirit into our lives, we are changed, profoundly, deeply and forever changed.”
In a talk punctuated by applause, Bishop Bennett spoke of the “subtle kinds of slavery” that keep people chained and separated from the freedom God offers.
“There are lots of slave traders in this modern age, and they have a callous disregard for your freedom,” he told the crowd. “They enslave you by lying to you, by telling you that alcohol and drugs will make you happy … They enslave you with insecurity, the lie that physical beauty and social popularity are the only things that matter in life. They enslave you with emptiness of heart and soul and tell you that no one really cares about you. And they enslave you with the lie that there is no God.”
Bishop Bennett said that it makes him “desperately sad” that there are so many victims of the lies, and that people make themselves slaves because they are “too eager to believe the lies.”
“It makes me even sadder that so many other people are unaware that they are slaves, because they confuse freedom with pleasure,” he said. “But it makes me angry that not one of these modern slave traders—not those in the media, celebrities, sports or music stars—is willing to take responsibility.”
Despite the despair of this slavery, Bishop Bennett said, there is hope.
“The Holy Spirit calls you tonight to live in truth, not in lies, to live in freedom and not to die a slave,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is not forced upon us. You and I have to choose to embrace that Spirit. When we do embrace, we accept and welcome change into our lives.”
It is easy to accept God and do the right thing at large events such as NCYC, Bishop Bennett said, but upon their return home, the teens must distinguish between the voice of the Holy Spirit and that of the “slave traders.” The bishop encouraged the teens to use five tools to help them—honesty, dignity, community, responsibility and living with simplicity.
With the virtue of honesty, he said, “you must be accepting of yourself as you are, living as your own truth rather than living the way others say you should be.”
Dignity, he said, is taking the risk to believe that “you are good, because God’s goodness is within you.”
“Whoever you are, you are a child of God, and nothing outside of you can give you dignity.”
To embrace community, Bishop Bennett continued, “You must admit that God is at work in others, not just in people and not just through people, but among people.”
Responsibility, he said, means acting and doing something “even if you’re not positive of the outcome and finding the balance between God’s grace and what we do for ourselves.”
“Failing occasionally does not make us failures,” he said. “But remember that nothing can be achieved unless it is first attempted.”
Finally, he encouraged the audience to live with simplicity and to take a risk to “live in as uncomplicated and uncluttered a way as possible.”
“I promise you, I promise you, by living your life simply, you will rid your life of jealousy, unhealthy competition, prejudice and the need to belittle anyone different than you,” he said.
The bishop ended his talk with a prayer that each person in the crowd would be open to the “transforming power of the Holy Spirit.”
Wearing his signature smiley-face T-shirt and carrying his guitar, Jesse Manibusan came onto the stage Saturday morning, Oct. 29, shouting, “Make some noise, church!”
Using his gifts of humor and of music to instruct and inspire, Manibusan embarked on a journey beginning with a new song that started with the words, “O, come and follow me. Leave behind your nets—I call you!”
Within no time, Manibusan also taught the crowd the message of his presentation, that they are here “to praise God above all things all the time … (for each is) a child of God, a servant of the Lord, and a friend of Jesus.”
At one point, Manibusan put away his guitar and spoke frankly.
“Some of us may see no reason to praise God above all things because of fear, anxiety, resentment, confusion, self-righteousness, despair, resentment,” he said.
Hurts caused by friends, family, the church, the government, the world can seem to make praising God “too tough,” he added.
He shared his own struggles.
“You think I’m always happy? Talk to my children,” he confessed, and then proceeded to explain why he wears his signature T-shirt, a present from his children. “They said to me, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Work on your anger.’”
While admitting his own fears and loneliness, he acknowledged that “still, I praise God above all things.”
He pointed to the Blessed Mother who is a role model as she chose to praise God even in scary times.
“The Blessed Mother knows how to praise God above all things,” he said, adding that Mary could have told the angel that she was too young, too shy or not holy enough.
“Gabriel said, ‘Mary, you’re full of grace. It’s not about you. It’s about God’s transforming grace.’ It’s not about me, either. It’s about God’s transforming Spirit where grace abounds. It is enough.”
He challenged the youth to live out their faith.
“Let’s be passionate about the unborn, but let’s also be passionate about the 38 million people living in poverty in America.”
In the Magnificat, Mary describes the love God shows for the poor, filling them, but says those who have not shared what they have are sent away empty.
“Jesus says the great prayer of the church. ‘This is my Body; take all of it. This is my Blood; take all of it.’ Jesus says that even though you sin and you struggle, I’m crazy in love with you and I’m with you.”
God reaches out to saints and sinners alike, he added.
“God, You’re here in my heart even though I don’t deserve it, I can’t achieve it, I can’t acquire it, I can’t buy it; but here I am.”
Manibusan ended his presentation as he began—with enthusiastic singing: “… Come and fish with me and your lives will never be the same.”
Suzanne Haugh and Gretchen Keiser also contributed to this story.