By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published June 18, 2009
When Curtis Stephan and Band took the stage Saturday morning at the 2009 Eucharistic Congress, hundreds of teens rushed the stage to dance and sing along, setting the bar high for the day’s events.
But the line-up of musicians and speakers throughout the day successfully kept the energy level at a maximum and continued to encourage and share positive messages with the young Catholics.
It was a day to celebrate unity among ages, cultures and races, and also to remind the teens that they are royalty and heirs to the kingdom of God.
Lisa Epperson, who has been involved with Life Teen ministry for 16 years, both as a teen and as a youth minister, led the teens through the day with prayer, challenges and some fun as well.
“My friends, welcome. … We have a phenomenal day planned for you,” she told the crowd that included teens, youth ministers and families.
“Today we are one in You,” Epperson prayed as the track began, asking that all would encounter Christ that day, regardless of where they came from or why they were there.
Some kids returned after a positive experience last year, while others might have been dragged along by their family members. But nearly everyone had a great time, even if they weren’t sure what they were getting into.
“Before actually arriving, I’m not going to lie, I was so skeptical,” said 17-year-old John Gramlich of St. Ann Church, Marietta.
Gramlich, who hails from the same town in Texas as Stephan, was excited to see the musician perform and thought the band did a great job.
All of the guests used a musical angle to spread their message, and the crowd enthusiastically responded with applause and cheers.
Epperson introduced the first speaker, Oscar Rivera, also known as IIX, as her new “BFF” and as he took the stage, he almost immediately burst into song.
Using hip hop beats and positive lyrics, Rivera caught the attention of a huge section of the crowd as they again rushed the stage to dance and clap with the music.
“Ain’t no party like a Catholic party ‘cause a Catholic party don’t stop,” Rivera barked in his thick, raspy voice as the rigid beats chugged along.
Following the high-energy introduction to his music, Rivera then took time to build on the message found in his songs.
“Why is it that we are all here?” he asked the crowd. “You have to believe you were called here by name.”
“You’re royalty,” he continued. “You are the sons and daughters of the King of Kings.”
Referring to the teens as “Generation Now,” Rivera encouraged them to take action, as the present is as important as anything.
“You have the energy, the drive, the charisma to be the Jeremiah to this world right now,” he said.
Mariah Pyrce, who attends St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, thought the Teen Track was “so much fun” and enjoyed Rivera’s performance.
“I liked IIX. His message was great in saying we are all royalty and that we are a huge part of the church,” she said.
Rivera also warned the teens about the opposition saying that “we’re up against the ugliest … adversary that we have ever faced: the devil.”
“But he’s a little punk,” Rivera said of the devil. “Royalty doesn’t back down. … When the Lord calls, that is when you act.”
The fiery rapper ended his talk with a reverent prayer, asking God to help them all realize that the time is now and praying that the teens continue saying yes to God.
Epperson again addressed the crowd following Rivera’s exit and, before releasing them for lunch, encouraged the teens to call or text a family member or friend who could not attend to tell them they are loved by God. Immediately hundreds of small lights appeared in the audience as they followed up on the suggestion.
Throughout the day, many of the teens could be seen flowing in and out of the different tracks. Several of the Hispanic youth attended both the Teen Track and the Hispanic Track, while others took some time to visit the General Track as well.
Ryan Shirley, a recent graduate of the Walker School in Marietta, enjoyed the congress and wanted to get the most out of it by attending the General Track as well, since sometimes the music was too much for him.
“The music took the place of hardcore speakers, who could have provided a much more powerful message to the teens as opposed to just music,” he said of the Teen Track.
“I will return because the congress provides inclusiveness to all Catholics in one area and I always learn something from someone that I don’t know before the congress about our faith,” he said.
After the teens had time to “down some grub” and peruse the vendors in the area close by, they returned to the exhibit hall for a praise and worship session by Stephan and icebreakers led by Epperson.
Before introducing the day’s second speaker, Epperson shared a little about her experience with Life Teen. Claiming she was “all about God” during her teen years, she candidly shared that feeling was only present at events like this one. She encouraged the crowd to “follow Christ no matter what.”
Epperson then brought Jesse Manibusan on stage, a Catholic singer-songwriter and co-founder of Two by Two Ministries, an international music and preaching ministry.
Manibusan, who treated young adults to his humor and message the previous evening at Revive!, returned to share a similar message with the teens.
He entertained the crowd with personal stories, including the story of how he got to where he is today. Manibusan shared that it was his mother who took him to Mass and planted the seed that would grow into a strong relationship with the Lord.
“Don’t look now, but your parents … they are all Catholic ninjas,” he joked as he told the story of how his mom encouraged him to play music at Mass.
Manibusan, whose dream as a young child was to be a Beatle, taught himself guitar and began playing Beatles tunes with his two brothers. His mother then attempted to get them to play at Mass, but the young Manibusan only wanted to be a rock star. However, when his mom asked, “Who does the cooking?” Manibusan quickly complied.
“That is why I am here today,” he said, noting how important Mass became to him over the years.
“Being on this stage is not heroic” though, he told the crowd. “If you see a sister, a priest, a brother, a deacon … that is heroic.”
“I really liked Jesse,” said Pyrce. “His story was hilarious and also inspiring. He told us the importance of going to Mass, which is something I really believe in. Some people see Mass as really boring, but I see it as Jesus coming down to spend an hour with us. Mass is really special. It’s our time to spend with Jesus.”
Manibusan continued to share important messages, making sure to include some humor by playing pop songs with silly lyrics. These included a spoof of “Beauty and the Beast,” which he transformed into “Beauty and Roast Beef,” and Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” became “Krispy Kreme Is Open.”
But Manibusan’s main message focused on the Eucharist, saying that God’s real gift to his people is his true presence in the Eucharist. He said the reason why the Eucharist is celebrated at a meal or table is because that is where love is expressed.
After encouraging the teens to go to confession to seek God’s forgiveness, he played a few final songs before walking off the stage with a box of doughnuts that was given to him by one of the teens.
Epperson addressed the group one final time, reminding the teens they are precious in God’s sight and encouraging them to take the message back to their churches, friends and communities.
“If we can take this energy back to our churches and our families, we will set the world on fire,” she said passionately.
Stephan and band took the stage again to end the day with music, and then the teens exited to reunite with friends and family members. For most, it was a day to remember, creating memories they will continue to cherish.
“(The Teen Track) strengthened my relationship with my mom really well,” said 16-year-old Marist student Robert Hahn. “We talked about how the congress was really a giant reunion. My mom saw lots of people she knew from our church, and having so many people praying and worshiping together was really powerful.”
Pyrce also left with a good experience, feeling that the theme of this year’s congress was quite fitting.
“(‘As Grain Once Scattered’) is the perfect theme for the Eucharistic Congress,” she said. “It signifies everyone in the church, everyone in the faith coming together as one. It really shows the power of Christ and how important Catholicism is to many people. It also shows that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what language you speak, we are all one body in Christ.”
Also contributing to this story were Shannon FitzPatrick and Emily Saunders, Georgia Bulletin interns from Marist School.