Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2003
By Father John Donovan/ SUN contributing writer
129 diocesan teens travel to Houston to meet their peers and strengthen their faith
On Thursday, Nov. 13, 129 teenagers from 23 parishes of the Diocese of Syracuse, the Brady Faith Center and the Catholic Deaf Community traveled to Houston, Texas to participate in the 27th National Catholic Youth Conference, (NCYC). They, with their 39 chaperones, were among the 23,000 participants of the conference held at the Reliant Park, an entertainment, sport and convention complex.
The conference was presented by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) which is “a non-profit organization of affiliated Catholic dioceses and collaborating youth-serving organizations that advocates for a comprehensive approach to youth ministry and the active participation of young people in the church.” Sister Eileen McCann, CSJ, director of the Office of Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Syracuse, serves on the NFCYM executive board. The NCYC began the evening of Nov. 13 with a general session for all participants in Reliant Stadium. The session began with entertainment from a variety of rising Christian artists, followed by introductions, rules and itinerary for the next three days. Msgr. Ray East from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. was well received and prompted the multitudes to respond, resoundingly, to the mantra: “God is good … all the time; All the time … God is good.” As readily as the crowd was eager to proclaim loudly their refrain, they reverently approached the prayer service that ensued.
Friday and Saturday were comprised of general sessions, break-out sessions, entertainment, and the opportunity to stroll through the Bayou Village. The Bayou Village consisted of artisans, publishers, representatives from Catholic colleges, vocation directors from a variety of religious communities and opportunities for service at the conference and summer work camps. The break-out sessions involved opportunities for music, leading into catachesis sessions. The most heavily attended session was that led by Matt Smith of MTV’s Real World who spoke about virginity and chastity to an estimated at 11,000. The doors to his presentation had to be closed for safety.
The two keynote speakers at general sessions were Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter was among the 167 people who perished at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995; and Craig Kielburger, the twenty-year-old Canadian founder of (Kids Can) Free the Children, a social justice advocacy group for children’s rights that calls for the end of child labor and slavery. When David Norton, a parishioner of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Mexico, was asked why he attended, his response was simple: “I was asked.” Sean Reardan of St. Ambrose Parish in Endicott stated what he liked most was “meeting people from all over the country.” What was learned? Patrick Ryan of St. Ambrose in Endicott responded: “Our Catholic Church is pretty big.” Norton added that the sessions were good opportunities to see how practicing his faith can bring him closer to God. Specifically, Norton mentioned practicing faith as doing service, putting faith into action, “helping people, who may not be able to help themselves, so that they can live on their own, not dependent on others.”
Natalie Field of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Liverpool, Colleen Kane from St. Ambrose Parish in Endicott and Nicholas Velasco of St. James Parish in Cazenovia were among 350 participants in the Youth Congress which met on Friday, Nov. 14. The congress consisted of selected delegates from diocesan parties, facilitators and the 32 bishops in attendance. The assigned topic was social justice. Each participant was contacted previous to arriving in Houston and given an assignment. Field arrived with interviews, posters, charts and enthusiasm to discuss and learn about the social structures of poverty and the Gospel response. The congress was divided into groups of 10-12 people at a table, each table having a facilitator and a member of the hierarchy. The three Syracuse Diocese teens shared the common vision of providing the bishops the opportunity to hear not just teens, but the people in the pews’ perspective on what needs to exist in parish communities and the role they envision for the church. They were also willing to accept the responsibility to take action to effect change. “Social justice is my life,” Kane said. “It is making sure all people of the earth can have the basic necessities of life — so children aren’t starving and adults do not have to put their lives on the line to feed their families.” She added, “social justice is not a hobby; it is a way of life.”
Velasco agreed. “Catholics are not just in church on Sunday. There are many facets and responsibilities to help the world live in peace,” Velasco said. The three shared the sentiment that participating in the congress was an enlightening experience. When asked what he learned from the congress about poverty and wealth in the world, Velasco adamantly responded, “The truth.” Cindy Heath, youth minister for St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus, led a delegation of 33 teenagers whom she surveyed at the end asking for the positive, the negative and suggestions for the future. Among the responses were concern about long lines for food and also general praise of NCYC. Yet a few comments stood out. Several were very pleased to have had an opportunity to trade buttons, hats, beads and tee-shirts with people from all over the country, to meet and talk with other Catholic teenagers. Several also commented about the importance of their appearance which they learned from Matt Smith’s talk. They said they are more aware of the messages they give and how they need to allow their attire to reflect their beliefs.
One student’s comment was particularly attuned to the element of forgiveness discussed by Bud Welch, stating that he had wavered about capital punishment previously, but now saw it as clearly contrary to the Gospel. Sister Eileen McCann was enthusiastic about the students’ response. She stated the conference was “a wonderful experience of the larger church and that the teens saw thousands of people their own age share the same enthusiasm for their faith.” The NCYC concluded as it began, with entertainment and prayer, ending with the Eucharist, Sunday, Nov. 16.
Editor’s note: Father John Donovan, who works in the diocesan Office of Vocation Promotion, traveled with the youngsters and reported to The Catholic SUN when he returned