By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published July 7, 2011
Two buses full of more than 80 parishioners from St. Mary Church took to the road just after 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, June 25, heading toward the Georgia International Convention Center for the 2011 Eucharistic Congress.
With a large group of teens tagging along, the EXCITE! youth track was on the top of the list for many of the youngsters. Ballard Betz, director of religious education for the Rome parish, said the Eucharistic Congress, and specifically the youth track, has always been a staple of the summer activities for the teens.
“We have been promoting this for several weeks,” said Betz as he sought shade outside the tent where the youth track was held this year. He led a group of teens into the track after morning festivities, joining nearly 600 other youngsters from throughout the archdiocese.
Betz said the Eucharistic Congress and the youth track are a great way for the St. Mary’s teens to see themselves as part of the larger Catholic picture in North Georgia, something they are not exposed to as often as some of the other groups who are closer to the metro Atlanta area.
“(The youth track) provides a more casual, relaxed environment for them to express their faith,” said Betz about his parish’s teens. “It is the hook for them to come to the congress.”
While the St. Mary’s teens spend a lot of time in the EXCITE! track, Betz also encouraged them to explore other portions of the congress so they could be exposed to as many of the speakers as possible.
Pedro Zavala, a 17-year-old parishioner at St. Mary’s, was present for his sixth Eucharistic Congress and likes to attend the youth track but also pokes his head into other portions of the event, such as the Spanish and English tracks.
“It is a good experience. There is always something new,” said Zavala, a rising senior at Rome High School. “I like to see a little of everything.”
This year the youth track was moved outside (and renamed to EXCITE!) to give a different dynamic to the event and also to provide more space inside for other growing tracks. While temperatures neared 90 degrees, the teens did not seem to mind as they stayed hydrated and positioned themselves in front of the many fans located throughout the large tent.
Tom Booth, composer and musician, kicked the day off with praise and worship music. Immediately the teens joined in with singing, dancing and hand motions, eager to exert some energy with old and new friends alike. After Booth warmed up the crowd with his upbeat performance, APeX Ministries, a Catholic comedy duo featuring Gene Monterastelli and Brad Farmer, took the stage to entertain the group and share a positive Christian message.
Blending jokes with props and entertaining stories, APeX Ministries captured the attention of the high-energy crowd, producing laughs and smiles throughout the early part of the day. The interactive performance called on audience volunteers for help and included the juggling of various items, a straightjacket escape, and other visual illusions.
At the end of the performance, Farmer shared a personal story about his sister, Britney, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was young and later passed away when he was a teen. He told the teens that at first glance it may have looked like Britney did not have much to offer the world, but there was something she did which touched him as a teenager and continues to inspire him today.
“She took what she was given and did something amazing,” Farmer said. Whenever someone would come to their house, she would completely drop whatever she was doing to greet the guest and give them a hug.
It was somewhat of a surprising and disarming act, he said, and the guests would always return her genuine expression of love, showing that just a simple act can have a profound and positive impact.
“Sometimes love just requires us to be present,” he said.
This theme was echoed in a new portion of the track this year in which two local teenagers gave witness talks. One of them was Shawn Horan from St. Theresa Church in Douglasville, who shared how he was struggling with his faith when a small act of friendship from fellow teens at his parish changed his life.
Horan had been feeling like somewhat of an outsider in his church, struggling to get involved and form positive relationships with kids his age. He began to question his faith and the existence of God, as church was one venue where he felt the most out of place. One day two teens greeted Horan at a youth gathering and invited him to be part of their group. This simple act of kindness went a long way, Horan said.
“I was at the point where I was pretty dang close to becoming an atheist. I never felt welcome in church. It was hard,” Horan told the crowd. Then during a confirmation retreat, two of the other teens approached him, talked to him and invited him to hang out with them for the rest of the retreat.
“It wasn’t anything giant. They came to talk to me, they came to help,” said Horan, who considers Colby and Rachel his two best friends now. “It was small. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, guys, when you go and help someone.”
It is this kind of message and connection between teens that Betz hoped the St. Mary’s teens would experience at the congress. To know they are not alone, that they are part of a larger group of young people interested in expressing and sharing their faith is an important lesson to learn.
“Our teens are proud of their Catholic faith and happy to do their share for the kingdom,” Betz said. “We are ecstatic to have this opportunity” to share that with other teens and Catholics, he said.
O’Keefe Johnson, a 16-year-old member of St. Mary’s, was attending the Eucharistic Congress for the third time. “I love the track,” she said. “You get to meet a bunch of new people and hear things you don’t pay attention to every day.”
Betz said the positive effect of the congress and the youth track on the teens seems to stay with them longer than other retreats or events they have throughout the year.
“The effect is noticeable,” he said. “This definitely has a more lasting impact on them … and they take that back to the parish with them.”
“People are sleepy-eyed on the way down here, but I know on the way back they will all be singing and having fun,” he added.
And having fun was definitely part of the youth track this year. In addition to the upbeat music of Tom Booth and amusing routine by APeX Ministries, DJ Bill Lage led the teens in a dance party after lunch, playing everything from The Jackson 5 to Justin Bieber. The Catholic DJ, who hails from Minnesota, provided an interactive experience, inviting some teens on stage to follow his lead and help teach others various dances to different songs.
All in all it was a successful outing for the St. Mary Church parishioners and teens, who enjoyed the youth track, and the congress as a whole, like so many others, and are looking forward to coming back next year.
“At our parish we are few, but here we are many,” said Rusty Rossiter, who has been attending the Rome church for nearly 10 years and now is the junior high coordinator for the parish.
“It is mind-blowing,” he said of the congress.